A new book that hit the shelves this week pledges to turn Net surfers into instant investigators, which may help users check out the credit reports, addresses, medical records, or divorce papers of friends and enemies.
NetSpy: How You Can Access the Facts and Cover Your Tracks Using the Internet and Online Services is a guide that lists Web sites and snail mail addresses that offer tips on tracking people down, conducting background checks, finding CIA and FBI agents, and making yourself invisible online.
The title is already a hot seller, and its release is fueling the debate about the availability and access of personal information on the Net and whether government regulation is required to protect the public's rights to privacy.
Netspy is targeted at both novice and experienced Internet users who want to find old friends, relatives, or even neighbors who make a lot of noise next door, according to Jay Sears, vice president of Wolff New Media, the publisher of the book.
"This book allows you to find almost anything you can imagine on anyone you want," said Sears. "The Internet is like going to a library that has been ransacked with no librarian to help you.
"We cleaned up the spying section of the library and guide you to the right places in this book," he added.
Sears said his company is aware of the invasion of privacy concerns, but defends the book. "We'd rather people know this information exists rather than keep it a secret."
But privacy watchdogs disagree. Beth Givens, project director at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says that making public information more readily accessible on computer networks is going to spark an outcry and become a widely discussed topic.
"What we're seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg," Givens said. "There is going to be a huge need from the public to protect these records from the casual, everyday neighborhood spy and it's going to be a very big public policy issue."
Government records have been available for years, but have been hard to obtain because they have been in paper form and housed in county court houses and registries. Givens said they should stay there.
The risks of providing public information to snoops are dangerous, she argued. "We're seeing more incidents where someone finds enough information about you to impersonate you in the financial world. People can apply for credit in your name, even buy a car or rent a house. Sometimes you don't find out until the collection agency calls."
Givens sees regulation as the answer. "Government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels need to look very seriously at the implications at having free, ready access to sensitive personal information," she added.
Right now, privacy laws don't adequately cover the breadth of information that can be gleaned from the Net, Givens said. Instead, the laws are more specific, such as a credit reporting law.
"If you look at our privacy laws in terms of an image of a safety net, it would be full of huge gaping holes and they need to somehow be filled," she said.
"Policy makers in Washington need to pick their heads out of the digital sand and do something to protect online privacy," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"If you're a private investigator, you may want to have this on your bookshelf. But if you're concerned about privacy," he added, "the book could make it difficult to sleep at night."