January 23, 2023

Data Transparency and Digital Identity with Harrison Tang, CEO of Spokeo

On this episode of Navigating Forward, Lisa Thee chats with Harrison Tang, the CEO, and co-founder of Spokeo. Along with his college roommates, Harrison started Spokeo in his parent's basement in 2006. From those early days in the cellar with parents as investors, the people search engine has now grown to serve 20 million people per month and half a million daily searches. Lisa and Harrison discuss Spokeo's mission to increase transparency in how identity data moves around and is utilized, along with the concept of self-sovereign identity. They also touch on the long tail aspect of the people search market, including how Search Angels use Spokeo to help people find biological family members. As a startup cofounder, Harrison also shares what has kept him going through the ups and downs of the journey from the basement to the present — including some wise words about persistence from his dad.


Narrator (00:02):

At a crossroads of uncertainty and opportunity, how do you navigate forward? This podcast focuses on making smart choices in a rapidly changing world. We investigate the challenges of being at a crossroads and finding the opportunities that arise out of disruption. Listen in on future forward conversations with the brightest luminaries, movers and shakers. Let's navigate forward together and create what's next.

Lisa Thee (00:25):

Hello, everyone. My name is Lisa Thee and I'm the host of the Navigating Forward Podcast. We love to bring luminaries, movers, and shakers into all the places that you like to listen in order to learn from. And today we have the honor of interviewing Harrison Tang, who is the CEO of Spokeo, and I think the first guest I've ever had that has only had a single job throughout his whole career. So, we look forward to talking about what he is so passionate about, he's devoted all of his energy to it. And welcome to the podcast, Harrison.

Harrison Tang (00:58):

Oh, thank you. Thank you, Lisa, for inviting me.

Lisa Thee (01:00):

I was so inspired by some of the work you were doing around digital identity, that when we were both speaking at the Data Con LA conference in 2022, I asked you to come and join us and educate us a lot about this topic, ‘cause I think a lot of people are still trying to catch up into what that really entails. So, for some of us that maybe aren't as familiar, do you mind explaining what Spokeo does to somebody that like maybe their grandmother might understand?

Harrison Tang (01:27):

Yes. Uh, Spokeo is a people search engine and an identity platform that organizes about 16 billion records into about 600 million entities or profiles so that users can search, connect, and know who they're dealing with.

Lisa Thee (01:43):

And with that, can you talk about, you know, what is a digital identity and how you define it?

Harrison Tang (01:50):

Yeah, so identity, essentially is the question of who we are, answering the question of who, right? One of the six Ws in English. And the exact definitions are accessible characteristics and attributes about a distinct entity. So, there's three components to this definition. The first definition is data attributes. The second definition is the idea of an entity, a distinct entity, right? In philosophy, you can call it metaphysics or the idea of existence. And the third attribute is actually access control. So, questions around data privacy is ultimately an access control concept. You know, zeros and ones that sits on some databases that no one can access to, obviously it's not very useful. So, you have to combine all these three aspects. And then that's the definition of identity, which is again accessible characteristics and attributes about distinct entity.

Lisa Thee (02:47):

Awesome. And where do you think the future is going in terms of defining that digital identity?

Harrison Tang (02:52):

Yes, I think the future of identity will be self-sovereign. It's about empowering users to take control of their digital identities. Today, the digital identity is essentially a bunch of data attributes lying around. So how do you actually link them together and then so that they can form distinct existence, right? And then ultimately, empowering users, right? The fiscal self linking and binding to the digital self. And then empowering them to take control of their identity by intermediating identity related transactions. You know, that is the key concept around the idea of self-sovereign identity. And I think that's the future where identity is gonna move towards.

Lisa Thee (03:37):

So, it touches on issues of privacy, it touches on issues of cybersecurity, it touches on governance. There's a lot of nuance to how our identities are formed today online. And I think there's a saying that says, if you're not paying for the product, you might be the product in terms of some data references. So, can you talk about ways you think things will be improved by having some self-sovereignty in owning your data and your digital identity and being able to have more control over that?

Harrison Tang (04:07):

Yeah, definitely. So, I think today, identity is essentially the means to the end. The how to, the what, for example, if you are actually trying to buy a product, the e-commerce companies that where you are trying to buy the product from will want to make sure that you are who you say you are. So that use case is called e-commerce fraud mitigation and identity verification. If you want to open a bank account, you know, you need to do identity verifications. Actually, by law, the bank has to have anti-money laundering and financial crime compliance, right? Uh, those kind of KYC, know your customer, procedures to ensure that you pass all these things before they can create a bank account. And that essentially are all part of the identity problem as well. And I think the difference between how it's done today and the future is that you don't know that these are happening.

Harrison Tang (05:02):

You are not actually in the middle of these, what I call identity related transactions. And through technology such as, uh, cryptographic proof or asymmetric encryptions, you can actually create what's called transitive trust in which you actually sit in between the verifier and the issuers. Issuers are data sources. So, think of it, think of it as a physical analogy of a wallet. The driver license that you have is issued by the DMV. And when, hopefully not, but when you are pulled over by the cop, <laugh>, the cop actually get the driver license from your wallet. So, you present the driver license to the cop, you intermediate the identity transactions, the, the cop doesn't call, uh, DMV directly, uh, right away and those kind of things. So that's the, the difference between you not being the loop versus you intermediating the identity transactions. And that's the sole, the primary way that, uh, self-sovereign identity technologies can help empower users to take control of their identity by empowering users to intermediate and control access to their information.

Lisa Thee (06:19):

It's such an interesting challenge in the spaces that I, I lead our consulting practice around digital safety. Uh, so much has been invested in thinking through what are cost effective ways to verify identity online, to make sure we are verifying that the age gates are enforced on certain platforms to make sure that people are able to keep the information that's important and privacy protected to keep that private, but also have some kind of ground truth of who someone is that you're interacting with. I thought it was really interesting that you brought up banking because a lot of the anti-money laundering work that I've been part of has been in human trafficking prevention or trafficking of broader topics as well. Where do you see some of the places that have the most demand in pull right now today for being able to verify those digital identities? How are these things being done today that maybe are a little bit more invisible to us, uh, that are being queried about?

Harrison Tang (07:17):

Yeah. In know, the truth is, uh, digital identity, uh, is being used more and more, right? And, uh, because as our activities move more and more online, the need for these, uh, identity verification, identity search technologies is, becomes increasingly needed. And earlier I was talking about the use case of e-commerce, right? Fraud prevention, uh, making sure that the customers that you're shipping the goods to are not fraudsters you know, you know, especially for goods that cost a lot, the impacts of, of fraud is a lot bigger. So, so I think e-commerce fraud is a huge market, and I think that's growing more than 10% year over year. So that, that is a major segment that even Spokeo is, uh, focusing on. Um, other markets like banking, uh, know your customers actually, that market is growing a little bit slower, at least the last time I was studying about a couple months ago. But more and more I think the identity use cases are going to be more and more prevalent because of the major trends around the need for authentic connections. Like, for example, the most recent controversy around Twitter Blue <laugh> identity verifications <laugh>. Yeah. Or the most recently, like, uh, Ticketmaster has, uh, this issue in regards to having huge fraudsters, right? Trying to, uh, buy and scalp tickets for, uh, Taylor Swift.

Lisa Thee (08:40):

Taylor Swift. Yeah. Yes. <laugh>, we were, we were in that queue waiting. So yes, uh, personally aware of that one.

Harrison Tang (08:47):

Yeah. So, I mean, the example goes on and on. And, uh, most recently, uh, FTX fiasco, I think that's a huge, uh, failure is in, um, financial current compliance and enhanced due diligence, right? So, there's a lot, a lot of examples, but, uh, as people seek more online interactions and authentic online interactions, I, I think, uh, the need for this kind of technology will just going be increasingly more important.

Lisa Thee (09:12):

Yeah, it sounds like the evolution in maybe automobiles, right? When they first came out, they didn't require airbags and seat belts, but you get enough traffic on the road that you start to have to have some things in place to protect folks as you have more issues arising. It sounds like we have more happening in our environment today than we have historically around fraud at scale that digital identity can really help with. So, can you talk a little bit about what technologies are required in order for this future to become a reality and having that greater personal control of your identity?

Harrison Tang (09:46):

Yeah, there's, um, multiple new technologies, but I think the most exciting one and most important one is what's called verifiable credentials. Let me go into that a little bit further. Credentials is a set of claims and claims is about data, about someone made by someone else. You know, essentially you can think of it credentials as, uh, someone's profile and verifiable comes from the fact that it, it's like a digital signature. You can easily verify that this particular credential comes from this particular issuer where this set of credentials is presented by this particular data subject or the holder. Okay? That particular, uh, technology, uh, is the most important one because if you look at identity access control, uh, roles, access models, there's roughly three roles, right? There's verifiers and searchers people looking for and verifying the information. There's the data subject, the person being searched on. And the last one, there's a issuer.

Harrison Tang (10:45):

And the funny thing is, most of the time, the data about data subject is actually not created by the data subject. For example, your driver license is not created by you. It's actually created <laugh> and issued by DMV your Uber driver rating, if you’re an Uber driver is actually not created by you, it's created by Uber or actually other riders. So there's actually these three main roles, and the key technology that enables the data subject to sit in the middle of this identity triangle or identity transactions, is the cryptographic proof digital signature that allows transitive trust so that when the verifiers is trying to make sure you are who you say you are, they don't have to call the API toward the issuer, but rather they just go straight to the holder, the data subject, they see the credentials, and they can trust that this credential is signed by the issuer enabling, uh, you or the data subject to intermediate identity transactions, thus moving and advancing self-sovereign identity. So I think that's the most important thing. There's other technologies like decentralized identifiers, uh, secure data storage and all that stuff, but in my opinion, verifiable credential is the most important technology that will push and realize the dream of self-sovereign identity.

Lisa Thee (12:03):

So, for somebody that has worked at a single company and has seen it grow to hundreds of people now, can you share with us what your, what things were like even five years ago at Spokeo versus today and what you've kind of learned from that growth?

Harrison Tang (12:19):

You know, when I first started, I thought actually I <laugh> convinced my, uh, uh, roommates, uh, to join me because at that time, no one wants to join me, right? I'm just a fresh grad of college, like with no track records, <laugh>. I convinced them by saying like, well, first of all, I said, you know what kind of friends you are if you don't join me. So I use peer pressure <laugh>.

Harrison Tang (12:42):

The second thing I said is like, hey, you know, if it, if we solve this problem, we're going to make it, maybe sell the company or whatever. And then, uh, if it doesn't work out, we all go find a job. What I realize and learn over the years is that, uh, the problems never goes away. There's always new problems to solve. So, you shouldn't see problems as problems, but rather you should see it as opportunities to improve. So, the problems that happened in the beginning of the Spokeo years, like for example, uh, almost run out of funding. I mean, that doesn't happen now, but there's other problems that didn't happen then that happens now. I think problems never goes away. There's always new problems. There are always more problems to solve. And I think the, the key things I learned is just to keep a positive attitude and see problems as the opportunity to improve.

Lisa Thee (13:33):

That's awesome. And what is your why? What keeps you motivated to come in and bring your best self every day, even during the days where maybe, you know, all the things that could go wrong, did go wrong, and maybe you're just a little tuckered out. How do you stay focused on what your mission is?

Harrison Tang (13:48):

Yeah, so our mission and why we exist is around this idea of transparency. And, uh, transparency has multiple levels. Uh, there's about four levels of transparency. The first one is called informational data transparency is, uh, what you know, right? Uh, sharing what you know, uh, with your team members, with the public, uh, to enhance trust. The second is what I call contextual transparency. Um, it's one big, right? I mean, it's, it's, uh, it is pretty small compared to 100, but it's a hundred times bigger than 0.01. So, you need to have a context before these information becomes, uh, actually meaningful. Um, the third level is what intellectual, sorry, not intellectual intelligence, uh, intelligence transparency, how these, this data and knowledge gets applied and gets used. And lastly, is what I, what we call epistemic transparency. And epistemology is one of the pillars in philosophy.

Harrison Tang (14:43):

Basically the, the how to solve a particular problem. In our case, it's the how to solve the problem of person existence. So our mission is about transparency. It's about epistemic transparency, the pursuit of knowledge and intelligence to, uh, understand and solve the problem of who. So that's our mission. Uh, now how does that relate to making sure that I keep working when I, when I feel down? The truth is the answer to that is about discipline. Uh, more than why, when I feel down and feel discouraged, I, I don't think about the why or the mission. I just stay disciplined, have a very set schedule. What I realize over the years is that that discipline actually carry you through the fact that you are always doing this as this certain hour, and you stay disciplined about that schedule will carry you through whether you are facing headwinds or tailwinds.

Lisa Thee (15:37):

Great advice, great advice. You know, as an entrepreneur myself, I think we all learn more from our failures than our successes. And are there any particular times that you'd be willing to share with our audience of, you know, the price of admission to innovation, which is, you know, a failure that you had, that you learned from that may benefit others?

Harrison Tang (15:58):

Yeah, I think the easiest one is obviously running out of cash. I mean, every engineer <laugh> runs into those issues. And I remember in 2008, um, our, our investors are my parents. And the reason is because we couldn't find any other investors. It's just that simple. <laugh>  

Lisa Thee (16:17):

I think everybody, everybody starts with the friends and family round of begging, right?

Harrison Tang (16:22):

Yep. Yeah. Yeah. So, when we almost ran out of cash I had to go with my dad and say, hey, can you help us out, uh, one more time? The first thing he said is, son it’s okay. Because when I give it to you, I've already written it off. You know, that's how much he has, how much confidence he has. <laugh>.

Lisa Thee (16:43):

Oh, that's ok. When I, when I launched my company, my mom told me that I no longer needed help from them with childcare ‘cause I didn't have a real job. I was like, mom, I have investors <laugh> like I'm the CEO. It's a real job. <laugh>.

Harrison Tang (16:58):

Yeah. So, all parents are alike, I guess, uh, <laugh>, but it's the second thing that's the most important thing. Um, he told me that, hey son, you know, success is actually not about whether you've been to Ivy Leagues or went to Stanford and things like that. It's actually about how much longer you can outlast the competition because, uh, if everyone else drop off, by definition, you will cross the finish line. So, I, I, I think that's the advice my dad gave me. And I just want to share with the audience, because it sounds so simple that the end day is how much, uh, persistence. I know there's a, a fine line between persistence and stubbornness, but at the same time, you know, in the case of facing tough challenges and failures like almost run out cash and cannot keep the lights on, I think, uh, you know, that kind of persistence is quite important.

Lisa Thee (17:47):

Yeah. I do feel like, like a lot of times I'm, I'm straddling that line between persistence and stubbornness and wondering which side I'm on. Uh, I think a lot of founders, uh, <laugh> probably feel that way as well. So, with that, can you share some accomplishments of ways people have used your technology that maybe you didn't originally envision that are things you're proud of? Like how has Spokeo helped people?

Harrison Tang (18:13):

Yeah, definitely. So roughly, uh, Spokeo's a very interesting, uh, market. It's what's called long tail market. So there's a lot, a lot of use cases like people are using it. Car dealership is using us for facilitating recalls, believe it or not. That's something that never thought of, but roughly there's two kinds of use cases and uh, one is what's called connectors, people looking for contact information, right? Uh, the second one is what's called verifiers or protectors. People who just want to make sure that they are who they say they are. They might know the user already or they might know that person, but they just want to make sure they're saying the truth, right? And then there's a B2B and B2C, so it's a two-by-two matrix. So there are a lot of lot use cases, but the one that really stuck out for me is what's called Search Angels. It's uh, people who are helping adopt these, find their biological parents and you know, even though that's not the biggest vertical and use case in regards to, uh, revenue, but that said, it's the most memorable one because it has an emotional component to it. Sure. Uh, cop business are using Spokeo to catch fraudsters. But at the same time, you know, the stories around family reunions or people discovering who their biological parents are for the very, very first time, you know, that those stories are the one that really jumps at me. Yeah.

Lisa Thee (19:36):

Very inspiring. The way that people can take your innovation and build upon it to do things in the world that touch all of us. So, for folks that want to keep tabs on you, Harrison, and want to keep in touch and learn more about your company, where are the best ways for them to find you and, and stay connected?  

Harrison Tang (19:53):

Yeah, people can find me on all social media because of the marketing team <laugh> has asked me to, uh, be active on all social media. So, you can find me at The CEO Dad on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or go to, uh, TikTok, uh, Tang Toks tang underscore T-O-K-S on TikTok. You know, I'm, you know, TikTok is one of the hottest thing right now and, uh, gotta gotta be on it, uh, to stay young, I guess.

Lisa Thee (20:21):

Mm-hmm. Well, I must admit I consume a lot of your content on LinkedIn since we got introduced and it is highly entertaining. So, I encourage everyone who wants to learn and enjoy at the same time to connect with Harrison and stay in touch. And thank you so much for sharing some of your journey. It's so cool to see somebody not only be the founder of the company but help skill it up and be successful where you are today, Harrison. So, I think, think your dad's advice has paid off.

Harrison Tang (20:49):

Oh, thank you Lisa. We're all trying our best. Right? So, thanks for having me.

Lisa Thee (20:53):

We're so happy that you were able to join us. Thank you so much.

Narrator (20:56):

Hey everyone, thanks for listening to the Navigating Forward podcast. We'd love to hear from you. At a crossroads of uncertainty and opportunity, how do you navigate forward? We'll see you next time.  

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