IF YOU THINK YOUR PRIVACY IS PROTECTED, GUESS again. Anyone with access to a computer and certain online services can dig up more about you in one afternoon than an old gumshoe could track down in a week. In just 10 minutes, for example, we found out Vice President Al Gore’s and House Speaker Newt at Gingrich’s home addresses and phone numbers, their lengths of residency, the value of their homes, and their estimated incomes, using the PeopleTracker database (CDB Infotek, 800-427-3747). PeopleTracker also provides another choice bit of information: The names, addresses, and phone numbers of Gore’s and Gingrich’s neighbors.
Fame and fortune, however, are not criteria for disclosure. Depending on the state you live in, other CDB Infotek services and databases, such as Nexis, might provide personal information about you: your divorce, bankruptcy, and credit history. Strangers can also freely eye any court judgments against you, information pertaining to a criminal record, your bank balance, previous address, and voter registration. Other juicy morsels available for quick and easy retrieval: where and how you secured a loan, whether you have defaulted on a loan, if there are: any state or federal tax liens against you, who sold you your home, and what size or type of house you have.
Privacy advocates are wary of the easy retrieval and widespread availability of this personal information. Supporters, on the other hand other personal information. Services are not extraordinarily invasive because the data is already a matter of public record. The only difference, proponents contend, is that the information is distributed faster and is easier to access.
Both sides agree that quick and easy information gathering will be the primary factor prompting more people to glean more data for a variety of uses–most of which are legitimate, necessary, and helpful.
These services can be a godsend for anyone researching an investment opportunity, for example. Judy Fahys, a business reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune unravels the tale of a businessman who put together a partnership for a luxury hotel and golf course community in the Bahamas. After learning that the partnership was not filed properly with the Utah Department of Corporations and federal authorities, suspected fraud. In just three hours, she uncovered that the only type of business this guy was into was running scams. The con man had a rap sheet and a number of outstanding judgments against him. Although he probably couldn’t even get a car loan, local investors were eagerly handing over their hard-earned savings because they were unaware of his tainted public record.
Entrepreneurs can check out a prospect’s payment history or find out if an especially litigious client is doing business under another name. Ted Smith (not his real name) owns a small public relations firm in Boston. He often uses CDB Infotek services to check out the credit histories and environmental records (for citations) of prospects. But these information checks have also come in handy for personal reasons.
Smith got a call from his daughter, who wanted to borrow $5,000 to buy a franchise. He did a background check on the company and discovered that the franchise had not only been successfully sued three times in two states over two years but also had liens against it. There was no longer a need for the loan.
There was a time when, due to high costs, only professionals, including private detectives, journalists, and other people who worked in or were affiliated with the research industry, could afford to access this personal information. But now almost anyone can affordably gather data unassisted. Suzanne Wiley, a Sacramento, California, researcher was able to locate her brother-in-law’s biological parents. Although she’s no neophyte to fact finding, Wiley says that a novice can achieve similar results.
The birth father has a very unusual name, which Wiley admits made her task of locating him much easier. In a matter of minutes and at a cost of what she estimates to have been around $2.50, Wiley used CompuServe’s PhoneFile database to conduct a search for all Americans with that last name. The database also provides phone numbers. Wiley quickly called the family. By happenstance, the birth parents had married each other after giving up their first child for adoption. They were shocked and thrilled to hear about their son. A reunion followed and everyone was happy-thanks to the information superhighway. But there’s not always a happy ending to these stories.
A battered wife who skips town to evade an abusive husband, for example, can be tracked down in minutes. Although goodfaith players sometimes lose court cases, a database is not likely to convey the circumstances. Someone who is now regarded as an upstanding citizen may have broken the law a decade ago. This person must face the reality that a youthful indiscretion will continue to live in his electronic file forever.
Private Subjects, Public Venues
Credit bureaus are required by law to drop bad-credit information after 10 years. But in a world where information is recycled, regenerated, and regurgitated by countless parties, an ancient credit ding can continue to pop up long after that time frame has passed. As Jim Sulanowski, a former writer for the Privacy Journal, told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Trying to protect your privacy is like trying to stop a computer virus. The information just keeps getting sold, resold, and sold again.”
You may wonder how credit information can be passed on when it is illegal, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, to give out consumer credit information without the consumer’s consent. It seems that a number of credit bureaus have been busy finding ways around the privacy shield laws by selling what are known as credit profiles. The Electronic Privacy Information Center reports that the Federal Trade Commission has ordered a number of credit bureaus to stop selling credit information to direct marketers. The FTC’s most recent action, against Trans Union, however, is being appealed.
Privacy advocates fear that hyper-target marketing could occur if online services were to sell what many subscribers consider personal information. Last October the news that America Online would sell its user list sparked controversy, for example. Although AOL president Steve Case tried to assure subscribers of AOL’s “sensitivity toward our members,” information watchers foresaw a future in which, if the practice spread, any service or subscriber might learn potentially damaging facts such as who contributes to homosexual bulletin boards. Will Congress, which chose to shield information concerning consumers, video rental choices after Robert Bork’s rentals were made public, step in?
“Traditional fair information practices, developed in the age of paper records, must be adapted to this new environment where information and communications are sent and received over networks on which users have very different capabilities, objectives, and perspectives,” writes the Privacy Working Group, which is drafting a code for privacy principles. A 1991 Time/CNN poll found that 93 percent of those polled believe that companies that sell personal data should be required to ask permission from those whom it profiles.
The Name Game: Are You a Player? A friend who subscribes to a number of online information services allowed me to conduct a search on myself using PeopleTracker. I braced myself for the awful moment when I would see my income onscreen. Get used to it, I told myself. This is the information age.
But when I input my name into PeopleTracker, which provides address, income, home value, as well as neighbor’s addresses, I found that I didn’t exist. Nor did my mother-in-law or a onetime boss. Why? It’s still a new service and not everyone is on it–yet.
On the fourth try, a friend-s name came up. The service listed his address, “median income,” wealth rating, and home value (about $181,600). The service also listed his mother’s name (she co-owns the house), the name of his live-in significant other, and the names and phone numbers of his neighbors. I asked him if the information was accurate. “Somewhat,” he said. “The median income was close enough but the home value was low.” Of course, data services don’t promise accuracy. They merely claim that the data reflects information as it exists according to other records. Boy, am I glad my name didn’t come up.