Spock: All your contacts are belong to us
Spock's beta sign-up asks for your password-protected contact lists.
The people search engine Spock is still in very private beta, but the doors opened up a crack this morning when a few more people were let in to the system, including me. Now that I've been able to play with the service, it's easy to see that Spock's creators are trying to build more than just a Google of people. Spock is also being built to map the relationships of people to each other.
This is made clear when beta users activate their invitation code. Spock asks you first for your personal connections: It wants you to provide a password to one system you use that has a personal address book. The options are LinkedIn, Plaxo, Hotmail, Gmail, AOL, or Yahoo. Spock does a one-time slurp from the contact list you give it. It says it uses the information so it can add your contacts to Spock, which is pretty cool and will make Spock look better to you, but by providing password access to your accounts, you're helping Spock get data it couldn't otherwise get from the public Web. In particular, you're providing not just names and data to fill out the Spock database, but also the connections between people.
As I said in my preview of Spock, I think the company is really building the framework for a social network, not just a search engine. Or perhaps, when it comes to databases of people, there's no clear difference.
I'm still looking forward to the full release of Spock, partly because the company is putting so much work into solving the very thorny problem of resolving its database so different people with the same name are handled the right way. Other people-search technologies (see Wink) just punt on this, and display separate records for each hit on a name they find (example).
Spock's current beta is pretty rough, and the database is far from complete, especially for noncelebrities. The dodge of getting new users to populate the database is very clever, and it should help. It does creep me out, though. Let me put it this way: If you happened to be in my Plaxo database, how would you feel about me sending all the details that I have on you over to Spock?
See also: TechCrunch on the likely fortunes for three competing people search engines.