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Research service raises privacy fears

A new service could provide wide access to Social Security numbers.

A new online tracking service that provides access to millions of Social Security numbers has raised concerns about potential misuse of confidential information for fraud and other illegal activities.

Lexis-Nexis, a well-established research firm used by corporations and individuals nationwide, told its subscribers last week that is has developed a new product that "puts 300 million names right at your fingertips." The company said its product, called P-TRAK Person Locator file, is "a quick, convenient search [that] provides up to three addresses, as well as aliases, maiden names, and Social Security numbers."

Although the new service is designed only for paid subscribers, industry experts say the potentially widespread availability of its information increases the possibility of misuse, particularly given that Lexis-Nexis has 740,000 clients. Already, stolen Social Security numbers have been a problem in crimes ranging from credit card fraud to illegal immigration.

"There are restricted laws of Social Security number use for the government itself, but unfortunately there are no legal restrictions on the private sector to use it. And that raises serious questions," said David Sobel, legal counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an Internet civil rights organization. "We're looking at this very closely, and we have some serious concerns."

Sobel said federal law specifically protects the confidentiality of Social Security numbers. He cited a 1992 case in Virginia, Greidinger vs. Davis, in which Marc Alan Greidinger was required by the state to provide his Social Security number to register to vote but challenged the order on grounds that it posed an unconstitutional burden.

The court agreed. "Armed with one's SSN, an unscrupulous individual could obtain a person's welfare benefits or Social Security benefits, order new checks at a new address on that person's checking account, obtain credit cards, or even obtain that person's paycheck," according to one of the appellate judges who heard the case.

Lexis-Nexis defends its P-TRAK service, saying the company can't be responsible for what is done with the information it provides. "Our company's policy has been, and continues to be, that this product is to be used in a legal manner, and that's one thing that we try to stress with our customers," said Judith Schultz, public relations manager for Lexis-Nexis. "If something did happen, we wouldn't deal with it because we are a third party."

In addition, the company said, P-TRAK can actually be used to fight illegal activities by turning up information on potential criminals. "We're targeting this product to the legal and corporate community, investigators, the FBI, the CIA, librarians, and even journalists," Schultz said. "We are also targeting people who are trying to find people who have skipped out on debts or to a parent whose child was kidnapped by their husband or wife."

Sobel, however, said federal law enforcement authorities should already have such information through the files of the Social Security Administration and other databases. "Why do they need a third-party intermediary to get this kind of information?" he asked.

P-TRAK finds information by using a simple search method with categories such as name, address, phone, and Social Security number. Charges for Lexis-Nexis services, including P-TRAK, start at about $125 a month, according to the company.

"I put my Social Security number in, and I got my current address and my previous address," Schultz said. "You could put the last name Smith in, but there would probably be too many records to look at."

According to the company, P-TRAK also has licensed the information from the Trans Union Credit Bureau. Trans Union officials declined to confirm or deny that statement.

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