Not long ago, if you wanted information about someone, you had to go from office to office to dig through reams of public records--or you had to pay somebody to do it for you.
These days, all you need is the Internet.
Public records, once limited to those who could actually get physical access to paper files, have over the years become increasingly available to investigators, employers, and landlords through databases. And now, some companies are turning around, taking that information and selling it to anyone with a credit card and a modem.
In one of latest examples, American Automated Systems launched a Web site that allows anyone to search for people using their Social Security numbers. Others also allow the same kind of search, though many screen customers first.
For $20, Netizens can plug in a Social Security number and a credit card through an insecure server and have American Automated conduct a search of public-records databases. American Automated is in the process of installing a secure server and hopes to have it up and operating by this weekend, said Christopher Skeeles, American Automated's vice president and technical director.
Once the data is entered, the user receives the results by email within a few moments.
For instance, a search of this reporter's Social Security number yielded her current address, as well as four previous ones. The entire process took less than three minutes.
American Automated has been conducting Social Security-based searches for years. But it brought those services to the Net only recently, Skeeles said.
Skeeles said his company is planning also to bring driving records and criminal records to the Net.
"The Internet is the great equalizer," he said, echoing a common refrain. "A lot of corporate people are upset at me. They've been doing this for years. It's just that they've never told anybody."
Karen Coyle, a privacy expert and Western regional director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, countered that bringing records to a vastly larger group of people is not necessarily a good idea. "Democratizing invasion of your privacy isn't necessarily a positive thing," she said.
Although private records once were limited by geography, they are no longer. "In a sense our privacy is being more invaded not because there is more information but because the information is more widely available," Coyle said.
On the other hand, she added, sites like American Automated will help raise public awareness about the availability of public records: "I never thought that I had to keep my address private, but how many people had access to it?"