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Lexis-Nexis to let public see files

Amid concern about the invasion of privacy online, Lexis-Nexis agrees to let members of the public see information about them on file.

Amid mounting concern about online privacy, Lexis-Nexis has agreed to let the public see certain information that it keeps about it on file.

Under the plan, members of the public would be able to ask Lexis-Nexis to send them information that is available under the P-TRAK service, just as they do with a credit report. The P-TRAK data typically would include names, addresses, phone numbers, and month and year of birth, as well as two previous places of residence.

Lexis-Nexis will charge for the information, though it hasn't decided how much.

The surprise move comes just two weeks after the Federal Trade Commission held high-profile hearings on the hotly discussed topic in Washington. Lexis-Nexis has been at the center of that debate since one of its services--P-TRAK--allowed its customers to obtain sensitive information such as Social Security numbers for a brief period in June of last year. (That feature was quickly removed after CNET's NEWS.COM reported on the service in June of last year.)

The company hopes to begin the new public service within a year, according to Steve Emmert of P-TRAK. It still has to work out a security system to ensure that the information is not accidentally leaked. "If this makes people more comfortable, it's a good thing," he said.

But privacy experts say that while people might feel better, they shouldn't. Lexis-Nexis is only one of many companies that collect personal information and distribute it for a fee. While Lexis-Nexis has been in the spotlight, other companies are quietly--and often less responsibly--collecting and disseminating private information.

In other words, if Lexis-Nexis disappeared tomorrow, it would change very little in the realm of privacy.

At the recent FTC hearings, Lexis-Nexis was one of eight database giants that agreed to establish guidelines to let people know what information they keep on file. But Lexis-Nexis's plan goes a step further, sources said, and not all the companies have agreed to follow suit.

According to Emmert, the company decided to make the information available before the FTC hearings. Many within the agency see the company's move as a step in the right direction.

P-TRAK makes money selling the information to law firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. It buys the information from credit bureaus.

Emmert says the service is misunderstood by privacy advocates, adding that it has valuable uses. For example, he said, government agencies can use the service to track down parents who do not make child-support payments.

However, privacy advocates worry that the information will allow strangers to go online and learn sensitive details about other people. That could endanger them or lead to fraud.