Information Mining

The amount of information available online is numbing, and not surprisingly, a lot of that data is about you. Every time you renew your driver's license, register to vote or move into a new house, a public record is created. And every time you use a credit card, stop at a teller machine or even pick up the phone, another piece of your digital profile goes into somebody's memory bank. The business of collecting and selling access to organized data is booming. According to Jeffrey Rothfeder, author of Privacy for Sale, information about each of us moves from one computer to another an average of five times a day. At the same time, all phone numbers for everyone in the country will now fit on one compact disk. By putting together bits collected from multiple sources, "psychographic" marketing profiles are generated and sold. When new junk mail comes to your house it probably means that someone has recently made money selling facts about you. Today, a global computer network exists, and your profile is in there, somewhere. Entrepreneurs on the digital frontier are doing some amazing things with this information, and some things that will leave you a little disturbed.DIGITAL ASSETS: THE RUSH FOR ONLINE GOLD Sell the farm and buy a computer says Owen Whitman, a commercial intelligence analyst who runs a global information clearinghouse over his phone from his home in Temple Terrace, Florida. Whitman insists that the future of business is online. "Technology is totally replacing real estate," Whitman says. "I mean, why is anybody going to drag their (body) to the center of town when they can work from home?" Whitman has found his own success in marketing the hottest new commodity around: custom information. "We are sort of librarians of trivia," says Whitman. "We do specialized market research for global corporate interests and notable figures. "Quite often we are asked things such as, 'We are going to Hong Kong. What would you do in Bangkok or Taiwan or Chicago?' I make connections, introduce them to the right people to talk to, maybe buy them a drink..."But more than just making business connections, Whitman says he can answer almost any question a chief executive might have. Clients have asked him for all kinds of information, from hospitalization advice to vacation destinations. Imagine spending your honeymoon in a luxurious and isolated Caribbean watering spot for the international wealthy, where someone of the corporate elite and old-money aristocracy would go to get out of the public view. Whitman knows where it is. "Nothing is particularly hard to find anymore," says Whitman, who gets his answers from a collection of proprietary databases, a global network of associates and the Internet. But most of his work revolves around people. "In the business world success always boils down to one individual, and with the Internet I can find him." Whitman is one of a new breed of "info-miners," using modern telecommunications and databases to help other companies grow in the international market. He can identify the best countries and cities for expansion, set up meetings with corporate and government officials, and even make specific arrangements for business trips. Whitman's extensive list of contacts and his talent for matching needs with solutions has made his company indispensable for both corporate and government clients. Another Florida company mining for online gold is called Flash Data. By amassing all public records for Tampa Bay area counties, this company offers marketers a powerful targeting tool. Businesses use Flash Data to generate highly specialized sales strategies and to identify potential clients. Andrzej Opara, CEO of Flash Data, says: "It works like this. Let's say you sell pool supplies. With our database software you can target all of the homeowners with a pool and a certain level of income. You can look street by street or even house by house." Likewise, marketers can learn details about individual clients or determine the needs of a hotel, restaurant, or other business, all through Flash Data and all without ever leaving the office. "The information we provide is all publicly available information," Opara says. "If you want to wait in line at the various county offices, they can sell you the information too." Anyone could go to a half dozen city and county buildings and purchase these records. But by combining records from various sources and organizing them in an easy-to-use format, Flash Data creates a valuable resource for their clients. Opara says everyone from stock brokers to taxi drivers can benefit from such refined targeting information. "You would be surprised at our list of clients," he smiles. Over the last two years Flash Data has sold their personal and business directories to real estate brokers, financial services, security agencies, restaurant suppliers, and even a dentist and a cab driver. Everybody, it seems, wants to know your number. SECRET SECRETS While Flash Data turns deeds and vehicle registrations into fine-tuned target marketing, Autotrack takes the same information and formats it for the "intelligence community." A dial-up database operating out of Pompano Beach, Florida, Autotrack formats the information to generate long-term profiles. The people who use Autotrack include more than 1,000 private investigators, large company personnel departments and newspapers. The company's clients are less interested in current statistics than in personal histories and professional background checks. But, although Autotrack serves up a rich soup of details on literally every person in Florida, it doesn't want you to know about its service. "We are a no-profile company," said an executive who asked not to be named. "We don't seek publicity, we don't want the public's attention."The public, it seems, might not feel warm toward a company that is selling personal information. Both Flash Data and Autotrack buy and sell information culled from the same basic sources. But there is a distinct difference. Whereas Flash Data will reveal the present location of an individual, Autotrack can also give you the names of old friends, relatives, and former addresses across the nation. Autotrack supplies criminal histories and credit reports, things for which Flash Data has no use. This illustrates a basic fact of online "info-mining." The same kinds of information can be manipulated for different uses. Both companies are painfully aware that their information could be put to questionable uses, and both approach the problem differently. "Our software is designed to generate mailing lists, not to help criminals," insists Opara, who points out that some technology such as a radar detector is specifically designed to break the law. His company is also still small enough that he can meet and assess individual clients before handing over any software. What about Autotrack? Do they meet everyone in person? No. But to log onto their system and peek into their files, one must endure several calls back and forth, and wait for Autotrack to verify that the caller really is who he or she claims. Their security is understandable, since their information is designed to make legal snooping easier. One security measure is puzzling, however. On a log-in screen, users are more or less asked to answer Yes or No to the question "I am a stalker." Would someone really say "yes?" So far, nobody has. On the other hand, someone recently did use Flash Data to track down the driver of a car speeding recklessly across a bridge in Tampa. Working backwards from the tag on a car you can find the person who cut you off, and even call them at home to tell them what you think about their driving habits! PERSONAL AND PUBLIC"How did you hear about Autotrack?" asked Steve Squitiro of Global Inquiries. A new company specializing in background checks and private investigation, Global Inquiries likes to protect its secrets. "We don't reveal our sources," insisted Squitiro, who later admitted that they used the same resources as other investigative agencies in Tampa.Laura Grumney of Data Retrieval Systems, says that almost all agencies use common resources for background checks. She is a member of the National Association of Independent Information Professionals, an organization that helps info-miners to improve their skills and networks. The important thing, says Grumney, is the thoroughness and track record of an investigative agency. Grumney says that people are stupid if they do not make an exhaustive background check of their associates, employees, and even potential spouses. "I had a client, a wealthy man in Pennsylvania, who was falling in a big way for a woman he knew," she says. "But some things just didn't add up. He asked me to do a background check on the woman and it turned out that she had three aliases. She had even stolen a Social Security number from a classmate in college." Grumney can tell you if your baby-sitter has a clean driving record or if a corporation has hidden assets. She can find old friends for a reunion or supply reference checks for a new employee. "The information is available," says Grumney. "Why would anyone marry, go into business or sue without all of the facts?" In Florida, at least, all of this snooping is legal. The facts are protected by the state's public records laws. All government records (including your driver's license) are available to the general public. The state's commitment to the principle of "open government" is embodied both in state statutes and the Declaration of Rights provisions of the Florida Constitution. Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth says: "As society moves rapidly to construct and refine the much-touted information 'superhighway,' the public's right of access to governmental records and proceedings must continue to be a significant component of the system." A spokesman for Butterworth says the legislature deals with public records issues frequently, but 'a lot of the C9 law is written broadly. The intricate tinkering goes on in a case-by-case basis. For example, the courts define email as a public record, but you won't find that reflected in the statutes."GLOBAL DATA RAPE "A spy with a computer is never more than three people away from his quarry," says an information specialist who asked not to be identified other than by his nickname, Doc. He also said that "with the right connections and proper monetary lubricant any criminal can be found ... or find you. But the real danger arising out of the free flow of information is industrial espionage." Just like in the James Bond movies, Interpol is there to help curb international computer crime. The International Criminal Police Organization (ICPO), Interpol is a real organization composed of 176 member countries with headquarters in Lyons, France. Interpol maintains an International Law Enforcement database and helps cops -- and occasionally spies. No civilian has access to this resource, officially, but professional researchers will admit that a few calls to the right friends and connections will get the answers. They repeatedly refer to an "Intelligence Community" that shares data on an international level. Here, too, companies are moving to cash in with snoop technologies. Norman Inkster is the head of KPMG Investigation and Security, based out of Toronto. "We're really the business world's answer to Interpol," he says. "Our global network of investigation and security associates gives us access to information around the world." As the president of Interpol, Inkster obviously has access to that source of information too. Inkster says corporate criminals are getting more sophisticated and more ruthless. "The rules of the game have changed," he says. "Today we're seeing a different breed of white-collar offender. Highly educated, technically literate, and presentable -- they are improving their skills all the time. In the past, fraud losses were nearly always in cash, but today even more valuable assets are commonly targeted." What's more valuable than cash? Says Inkster: "That would be business information, proprietary computer software, scientific research and product inventory." If you think about it, a person's worth is often just a number, such as a bank balance. The bank may or may not even have the money on hand; that is not important. It is the number that counts. Power and wealth today are measured in terms of information, not materials or property.FOREVER YOURS ... IN CYBERSPACEIf you feel nervous about all these spies with access to your life's details, don't worry, you can check up on them online too. NameBase, by Public Information Research, Inc., is an index that cites sources where the famous and not-so-famous are mentioned. Thousands of intelligence officers and agents are listed, mostly from the United States, Britain, and the former Soviet Union, as well as political elites and activist groups from the Right and Left, the foreign policy establishment, and big business. Banking scandals, assassinations and conspiracies, and organized crime are also covered. Most of the data pertains to current events and the Cold War period, although it reaches back to the beginning of this century. In fact, if you are anybody who is anybody, chances are you are all over the Internet. Brad Pitt and Tori Amos are ubiquitous. Pages pop up on the World Wide Web as easily and quickly as weeds, and there is very little that one can do once it is there. In fact, even copyright laws are being redefined as governments around the world scramble to catch up with technology. With so much information about them flying around out there should people worry about the effects of new technologies on their lives? "You could ruin someone's day for them," admits Whitman. "But you could also make someone's day. It is a convergence of things I never expected, a combination of contacts and technology. I just look at it as tremendous opportunity to meet people." Perhaps one day he will meet you online too.SIDEBAR 1: 00CyberThere is a huge market for protecting digital assets and other forms of information. A firm called Communication Control Systems offers a line of products straight out of a James Bond's bag of tricks, including the old mini-submarine and "hidden-camera-in-a-hat." Here are some excerpts from their Web site, SPY ZONE: KIDNAP PROTECTION: "We want $400,000 in cash or your chief executive dies." Be prepared for the real possibility of kidnap. The AJ1800 PKR transmitter is specifically designed to alert security personnel of kidnap and to track the victim thus facilitating rescue. Track contraband, find stolen vehicles, protect VIPs, rescue kidnap victims. ELECTRIC SHOCK BRIEFCASES: A thief grabs your briefcase full of valuables, cash and important papers. You press a remote button which you carry on your key chain and 35,000 volts of electric power sizzle through the stolen briefcase handle. The thief drops the case and runs. LIE DETECTION: The Truth Phone-Digital lie detection for analyzing the voices of those you speak with on the phone. Digital read-out alerts you of possible deception. SWEEPS: Is your office or home "bugged?" Are you sure you are not loosing business because a competitor hears every word you say in private? Are you positive that you are not being actively investigated? Rest peacefully once you have your office, automobile and home "swept" for bugs and unauthorized transmitting devices or wiretaps.

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