Netizens find who's watching them

A new subscription site lets you comb through a plethora of Web-based government databases to see who's keeping tabs on you and how much they know.

3 min read
Edward Allburn makes no bones about his background: "I've been working for the privacy bad guys for the bulk of my career."

Allburn used to develop database warehousing technology for such companies as IBM and Metromail, a company Gumshoe in Cyberspace that sells personal information, such as what kind of magazines people subscribe to. The data is then used to develop personality profiles that companies use to sell information.

Now Allburn is trying to use the Web to leap to the pro-consumer side. His goal: "To build a whole suite of tools, utilities, and resources that consumers can have available to get really informed." Today Allburn announced Privacy Inc., a subscription site that will allow people to comb through government databases and find out which companies and agencies keep personal information about people.

Allburn said he was at a database conference when "the wheels started churning in my head about how technology has been advanced at a tremendous pace and how there's so little balance in the marketplace for the regular consumer. That's when things clicked and I thought, hey, there's this big disparity in the power matrix. The marketplace needs to step up to bring more privacy to consumers."

If they know what's out there, he reasoned, then they will be able to at least make sure the information is accurate.

Allburn, president and CEO of the year-old company, is far from the first to develop a privacy-based Web site. Hundreds--maybe thousands--of sites exist that promise to either protect privacy or give you access to information about other people. Sites that claim to protect privacy often are stunningly similar to sites that claim to give you more information.

The irony in the information age is that the very act of showing people where information about them is stored gives them instant access to databases that allow them to conduct searches of other people.

Allburn understands that irony. In fact, his subscription-based Web site ($29.95 per year) allows users to search for personal information on a plethora of Web-based government databases. And anyone who has access to the site also can use the database to search for other people. But Allburn said that information is already available out on the Web. He said he wants to inform people where their records might be stored so they can check to see whether the records are accurate.

That's just the beginning. The site also has information about the kind of private data that corporate America collects and makes available to other businesses, but not to private individuals. If you live in the United States and haven't been living in the woods on your own for the last 50 years, chances are you're somewhere in the databases. Information collected includes everything from your age to how many children you have to your income, shopping habits, and reading habits.

Privacy experts have long worried that this type of information could be--and perhaps already is--combined with the kind of detailed information available on the Internet.

While companies and governments have long collected private information and made it available to anyone who knew how to get it, the Internet makes information readily available, often instantly. Everything from prison records to sex-offender databases are online. But now, instead of that information being limited (whether by design or circumstance) to an elite cadre of information gatherers and companies wanting to get their hands on personal information, millions of ordinary citizens (including those who could abuse the information) now have access to it.

The Net has succeeded in doing what no amount of books had done: It has brought unprecedented attention to the availability of information.

But while Allburn's site may have access to a lot of databases, he doesn't claim that the site is comprehensive--or even close to it.

That's because it's pretty much impossible to get total access to all personal information stored in thousands of databases, said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"You could spend the rest of your life checking databases and verifying whether your personal information is correct," Rotenberg said.

This site, he said, is not a solution to the problem, but a symptom of how pervasive it is.

If people really are concerned about their private information being released, they should look to legislative solutions, he said. "There are no significant legal safeguards in place. The burden on consumers is already too great and there need to be some legal standards in place."