Private lives online

Although personal information has long been available in the public domain, recent controversies have underscored new concerns about confidential data being available more widely and obtained more easily through the Internet.

CNET News staff
5 min read
When word spread over the Internet that nearly a quarter-million subscribers to Lexis-Nexis could get personal information from their service, Netizens panicked. But not David Kennedy.

A security analyst with the National Computer Security Association, Kennedy knew that removing his personal file from the research service, as so many thousands were rushing to do, would be like pulling a needle from a proverbial haystack of information.

That's because Kennedy knows one of the best-kept public secrets around: If you're alive, you're documented. It just so happened that Lexis-Nexis got a lot of publicity for doing what countless companies have been doing for years, providing confidential information to lawyers, investigators, journalists, prospective landlords, and others who have a vested interest in finding out more about you.

"What you perceive as private really isn't private. Everybody needs to redefine what they consider private information," Kennedy said. "Once you start telling people about it, it really isn't private."

Experts say he's right. So-called confidential information is so ubiquitous--recorded everywhere from courts to corporations--that there's no point in trying to eliminate it from any one particular source. Phone companies, credit bureaus, retail outlets, banks, courts, and police all keep records containing everything from your address and Social Security number to shopping preferences, credit history, and family background.

Find out how much
of your personal information is online
But new concerns have arisen with the mainstream popularity of the Internet. Today, what worries many people most is not what's happening now, but the potential that the Net offers to compile more information on individuals.

"The Web," said David Sobel, an attorney with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, "is going to be an incredible new means for collecting new personal information."

The Internet doesn't necessarily mean that more personal information is being collected, at least not yet. But it does often make getting that information a lot easier and faster.

For example, many Internet sites either require registration or ask you to register voluntarily. Not only do they have your name, but subscription services could theoretically track every article you read. One day, someone could use all that information to piece together a fairly detailed personal profile.

Karen Coyle gives advice on confidentiality.

Privacy experts worry about the future as well as the present.

"It definitely has made it easier to find the information, and it probably has made it available to more people," said Karen Coyle, the Western regional director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

A national controversy arose this summer after CNET reported that Lexis-Nexis, a well-regarded information research service, was offering a new feature that "provides up to three addresses, as well as aliases, maiden names, and Social Security numbers," and "puts 300 million names right at your fingertips" for charges starting at about $125 a month. The new service, called the P-TRAK Personal Locator file, was offered to Lexis-Nexis's 740,000 subscribers in June.

After receiving complaints that P-TRAK could increase the potential for fraud or other illegal activities, Lexis-Nexis removed the Social Security numbers feature from its service, but subscribers were still allowed to search for other personal information. The Federal Trade Commission is examining the propriety of such information services.

"There are a lot of people that don?t understand how information is collected by any number of agencies," said Judi Schultz of Lexis-Nexis. "We are not the only company that purchases this type of database. We just happen to be the one with the most name recognition."

Nevertheless, the Lexis-Nexis case pointed out that the Net has the potential not only to spread personal information more efficiently, but also to offer a means to compile more information, using such tactics as online registration forms.

Both ideas scare a lot of people. "It?s a bit intimidating knowing that so many people in corporations or investigators have access to information," said Lauren Hatvani, a private investigator with Mirror Image Investigations in Oakland, California. "But to think people who haven?t had any training or are bored teenagers can get this information..."

A number of Web sites allow anyone with a credit card to get certain information on people, but most require some kind of contract to screen out the unscrupulous. Some even do background checks of clients before providing information, but too many don?t.

Others point out that people who want personal information certainly have plenty of avenues to follow.

"Many times, employers or past employers have Social Security numbers on file, and if you ask, they'll give it to you," said Wolfgang Hammersmith, a head investigator for Cyber Survival, a private-investigation firm based in Seattle.

Getting information "is easier than robbing a house," he said. "It?s so simple to gather information from all kinds of sources."

Both Coyle and Sobel advocate laws to restrict the ability of companies to compile and pass out private information.

But Hammersmith says restricting information just takes it out of the public arena and puts it exclusively into the hands of the government--something he says could jeopardize the very foundations of democracy.

"If you restrict it from the public, the government will always have information," Hammersmith said. "I work so many cases," he added, "where the handling of information is abused."

Coyle describes reality of Information Age.
In any case, privacy experts advise taking precautions to protect your personal information as much as possible. As Coyle points out, there's virtually no way to remain totally anonymous in this society.

"The only way to be private is to not have a phone and therefore no record at the phone company. Somehow have your gas bill come in from an offshore account. Never have a bank account or a credit card. Don?t turn in a tax return...The Unabomber probably had pretty good privacy, but most of us don?t live out in the woods with no contact with the rest of the world."

There are, however, ways to protect your confidentiality, she said, such as refusing to give out personal information unless it's necessary and then insisting that it stay private; not sending in warranty cards; and either not filling out registration forms or providing false information.

Others, like Kennedy, aren?t especially worried. Seeing much of the issue as overblown, he advises people to "calm down."

"No one is selling the pin code for my ATM card," Kennedy said. "No one is selling the balance in my checking account."

As far as he knows, anyway.