Click Here, Sherlock

I know who you are. I know where you live, and I know what that unlisted phone number of yours is. I know what car you drive, how much you make and how much you owe. I know about the good you've done, and I know about the trouble you've been in, right down to that last speeding ticket. I know what you eat, drink and read, and where you go to play.I am Big Brother, and more. I am Corporate America and I am the psycho down the street. I am the jilted ex-lover you wanted to avoid, the bill collector you've been trying to dodge, and an old pal from college who just wants to chat. I am everywhere."The selling of personal information is a huge business, and it is happening on a mass scale," says Evan Hendricks, editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Privacy Times newsletter. "There is an epidemic out there."There is no surer symptom of this epidemic than your Social Security number. It is a key to unlocking your Pandora's Box of personal information. Think it's private?Think again.It may be against the law for the Social Security Administration to divulge your number, but anyone else who obtains those crucial nine digits is free to peddle them on the open market. And it's a market that's wide open. For as little as $12, anyone with access to the Internet can buy your Social Security number in a matter of minutes. In fact, it's a buyer's market-- any number of online services will sell you the information at the click of a mouse. All someone needs is your name and address, and the number is theirs. Instantly. It is a potentially costly convenience."The easy availability of Social Security numbers is widely cited for increased levels of banking fraud and credit card fraud," observes Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, D.C. "The problem is that the advance of technology has far outpaced changes in the law, so that right now there is an absence of enforceable privacy rights." What other information can be obtained about you? A company called NCI out of Austin, Texas, provides a handy menu listing more than 30 searches it will conduct--all for less than $60, with most of the information available instantly. Someone can find out your address for $6. Unlisted phone numbers go for $9. A list of the neighbors living next to you is $11. Real estate filings can be found within two days, criminal histories in a week. Worker comp searches, bankruptcy filings, driving histories-- all are available in a matter of days. And it is all legal.This type of information has always been public. What's changed is the ease of access. Searches that a decade ago could take days, weeks or even months of legwork by an experienced investigator can now be done instantly, for almost nothing.License plate searches are an excellent example. At a Website called the Internet Department of Motor Vehicles, you can enter the number of any license plate-- whether it belongs to the car that sideswiped you on the way to work or that hot number behind the wheel of a Porsche you saw while stuck in a traffic jam-- and for $35 you will receive a report listing the name of the car's registered owner, along with his or her driver's license number, address, date of birth, and insurance company. For an additional fee you can also find out who financed the car loan."The information is out there, and it is available to anyone to access for whatever purpose they want," says Glen Roberts, who runs a hot Internet site called the Stalker's Home Page. "I guess I could have called it something like the 'Privacy Page' but that would have been boring," explains Roberts, who has been following the issue for more than a decade. "What would be more absurd than a home page for stalkers? We thought so, but we're finding more and more personal information widely available to any prying eyes." His web page is part how-to guide, part warning signal. It lists a half-dozen online phone books that can be used to track down phone numbers and addresses, as well as other online data bases that can be accessed, some for a fee, others for free. "Without a firsthand look at the information which is out there for anyone and everyone, how can we get a true understanding of the impact all this will have?" asks Roberts. "Clearly, the negative impact will be much greater if there is not a mass awareness and public debate of the issues. As it is now, the only person being left out of the loop is the poor schmuck whose privacy is being invaded."In America today, personal information is an economic commodity, pure and simple. And nothing is more valuable than your spending habits. Anyone who doubts this only needs to visit the Direct Marketing website and peruse its online magazine.What you will find is database after database offering lists of prospective customers-- lists obtained through data recorded from credit card purchases, magazine subscriptions and a host of other sources. One company, for example, has a 53,000-name list of people who have purchased dance shoes, leotards and pom-poms within the past 12 months. How does it feel to know someone has their marketing eye on your little cheerleader? There's also a 30,000-name file of 1996 contributors to Republican Party candidates. "Many are multiple and high-dollar donors," promises the blurb. Another offers a 122,000-person list of cigar buyers, with names selectable by "telephone, geography, age, income and credit card." My favorite was the list being peddled by Terra Libra Institute, which is selling a 23,000-name list of "privacy book buyers" and people "interested in articles on freedom.""People may have some vague idea that there's lots of personal information about them out there, but they don't know the specifics, they don't know the extent. Really, it's incredible how much information is available," says Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of the Privacy Journal.And if they did know, would they care? That's a matter of some debate. "I'd say that the basic problem is not the United States government or corporations," says Andre Bacard, author of The Computer Privacy Handbook. "The real problem is that Americans, by and large, don't care about freedom. Privacy seems abstract." Take the effect of what he calls the "enormous propaganda machine of consumerism" and combine it with a desire for convenience, and what you have, says Bacard, is a society of individuals "willing to sell their rights in the free market."Others disagree."People do care about privacy," contends James Love, director of the Consumer Project on Technology. "The problem is, groups like ours haven't been ingenious enough to come up with a good campaign. To be honest, I can't believe we aren't kicking ass on this issue." But there are obstacles. "I have to lobby against these people on Capitol Hill," says Love, "and what we are up against is an industry that's just a big, well-oiled machine."And it's getting bigger. The direct marketing industry alone does $600 million a year in business. There are the credit reporting agencies and the online suppliers of information. "I used to think these were just little mom-and-pop operations," says Smith of the Privacy Journal. "But last year, Equifax (one of the so-called 'big three' credit reporting bureaus) bought an information provider called CBD Infotec for $35 million. And there must be 50 companies like Infotec out there."We are also seeing a merger that has information conveyors such as telephone companies becoming information purveyors. For example, Southwestern Bell offers its commercial clients a version of caller ID that provides businesses with immediate census tract data on customers calling in. Closer to home, Ameritech began offering online services that allow users to access government databases. "So far, consumers have been far too accepting of all this," says Smith. "They just sigh and say, 'This is the way things are.'"But there are signs of growing backlash. Earlier this year, when it was reported that Lexis-Nexis was including Social Security numbers in its P-Trak information service, people jammed the company's 800 number and flooded it with email requesting their information be removed from its files.On the governmental front, both the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve are investigating the issue of brokering personal information. "Congress is waking up to the fact that consumers actually care about privacy," says Love of the Consumer Project on Technology. There are also financial pressures coming from outside the United States. "Because of its anti-privacy positions, European countries are restricting their flow of data to the U.S.," reports Love. "They are trying to drag the United States kicking and screaming to meet their privacy standards."But there's at least one instance of what might be called enlightened self-interest on the part of American politicians. The prime example of this occurred during the Reagan-era hearings on the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. While the hotly contested hearings were under way, an enterprising reporter at a Washington, D.C., alternative newspaper obtained a list of Bork's movie rentals from his favorite video outlet. Outraged congresspeople, possibly fearful of disclosure that their movie tastes weren't quite as wholesome as Bork's, almost immediately passed a law prohibiting such disclosures."As a result," says Love, "the movies you rent is a secret more closely guarded than the information in your medical records. "The view of the information industry now is that society will be better off if nobody has any secrets," says Love. "Aren't people entitled to some measure of privacy?"While he doesn't answer that question, author Michael Wolff offers a chilling assessment to our current circumstance in the book Netspy. "The 1990s is the decade of the spy," declares Wolff. "You may not have noticed, but if you look a little closer the evidence is overwhelming."The effect of electronically linking almost every human being to almost every other is an event of such magnitude, it will keep philosophers, technicians and philosopher-technicians in business for ages. At a less cerebral level it means that anyone with a modem and the right skills can find out pretty much everything they need to know about everyone else. It doesn't take a private investigator to have detected that."For more information on electronic privacy: Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) 666 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Suite 301, Washington, DC 20003 ph: 202-544-9240 e-mail: Web site: Consumer Project on Technology Box 19367, Washington, DC 20036ph: 202-387-8030 Web site: The Stalker's Home Page Web site: Bacard's Privacy Page Web site: Privacy Journal P.O. Box 28577, Providence, RI 02908

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