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Service still provides sensitive information

Lexis-Nexis still provides sensitive personal data on its widely used information service, three months after saying publicly that it had withdrawn the controversial feature.

    Lexis-Nexis is still providing sensitive personal data on its widely used information service, three months after saying publicly that it had altered the feature in an effort to prevent potential fraud and other abuse, CNET has learned.

    Lexis-Nexis had changed its P-TRAK Personal Locator so that users could no longer obtain Social Security numbers simply by entering a name. The company took the action June 12, a day after CNET reported that Social Security numbers were widely available on the service.

    But members of the public have complained in recent days that private information is still too readily accessible through the service. Lexis-Nexis executives confirmed yesterday that such information could be obtained if a subscriber entered a Social Security number for a search.

    Lexis-Nexis maintains that the service is legitimate and is marketed to lawyers and law-enforcement officials who use the information to track parties involved in litigation. While the information is available only to subscribers, the company does not screen its applicants.

    The company said today that its 800 number is jammed with calls from people seeking to have their information removed from the service. Lexis-Nexis said people can apply to have their information removed from the service by filling out a form available at its Web site.

    The P-TRAK service provides its 740,000 subscribers with 300 million names, previous and current addresses, maiden and assumed names, birth date, and telephone number.

    The wide availability of such information has raised legal and other concerns. Criminal activity ranging from credit card fraud to illegal immigration is often associated with illicitly obtained Social Security numbers and other information.

    Although Lexis-Nexis has changed the service to address such issues, the fact that private information can still be obtained with a Social Security number is still problematic, said David Sobel, legal counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

    "It raises almost as many concerns as working the other way," Sobel said in an interview. "I can't foresee the circumstance in which somebody would have a Social Security number and have a legitimate need to tie a name and address to that number."

    Sobel and other experts on privacy law and related issues expect to see a backlash against the indiscriminate sale of personal information, especially as consumers express increasing concern over the global reach of the Internet and its contents.

    Lexis-Nexis is not alone in cataloging such information, but its marketing efforts have made it stand out from the rest. A mass mailing sent in June described P-TRAK as a service that "puts 300 million names right at your fingertips."

    "It's not as if Lexis-Nexis is the first private database to contain Social Security numbers," Sobel said. "It's just that this was the first mass marketing of that kind of information."

    International Research Bureau provides Social Security numbers to "people who qualify" for $13 through the regular mail. This service provides "whatever is available" within one day to whomever sends in a number to be checked.

    Lexis-Nexis executives claim that they have five competitors in this field, including CBD InfoTek and West Publishing Information America.

    The issue has drawn a wealth of bad publicity for Lexis-Nexis, which has been known as a reputable and reliable source of information for many individuals and corporations, including news organizations.

    In an effort to persuade Lexis-Nexis to pull the feature altogether, email has flown across the nation over the last few days urging Netizens to take action. The message reads: "I suggest that we inundate these people with requests to remove our information from the list and forward this email to everyone we know."

    Individuals interested in having their name removed from the P-TRAK file can fax their full name and address to 513/865-1930, but Lexis-Nexis has no legal obligation to fulfill requests.

    Legal restrictions on the use of Social Security numbers apply to the federal and state governments, but not the private sector, according to Sobel.

    "The private sector has free reign," he said. "The only effective means of curbing the practice in the private sector is through public opinion, and I think we're seeing that being expressed here."

    Sobel hopes it will set an example for companies with similar ideas. "I think the whole practice is going to become a lot more controversial now and the reaction that Lexis-Nexis has gotten should give pause to any company that even thinks about doing it," he said.