On-line services offer better access to records but ease snooping

August 15, 1994|By Cox News Service

As the manager of data security for a Washington-based software company, Dr. Peter Tippett likes to nose around on-line computer services. But he doesn't always like what he finds.

Tinkering with Prentice Hall Online one day, Dr. Tippett punched in his own name. Out popped public records pertaining to his life from the two states in which he's lived.

A copy of his medical license -- he's also an emergency-room physician -- what he paid for his house, the number of bathrooms in it, the size of his front yard, previous addresses, median income for house holds in his census tract, and dozens of pages of other information flashed before him.

By accessing 300 million public records in more than 45 states, Irvine, Calif.- based Prentice Hall can track long-lost lovers, provide historical data on real estate and come up with information on some assets of individuals.

Like Prentice Hall, a growing number of firms provide public records electronically. The improved access has been hailed by many -- from business owners to public-interest groups -- that rely on government data. Others worry about consumers' privacy, acknowledging that while this information is public, it hasn't been easily accessible.

"Instead of having to physically go to a public building, look someone in the eye and ask for information, you can get it all with one command on the computer, which makes it too easy," said Dr. Tippett. He has access to several on-line services as a board member of the Computer Ethics Institute, a nonprofit research group.

"I can be standing behind an attractive woman in a grocery line, glance at the name on her check and find out later through a computer where she lives, her number and who she lives with," he said.

Atlanta-based Information America Inc. has been perusing public records for 12 years, and now buys hundreds of magnetic tapes a day from offices of secretaries of state and other sources.

The company provides information on individuals' assets, from real estate to boats, to -- under certain circumstances -- stock. The company tracks people as well, recently helping locate individuals involved in the savings and loan scandal.

"Our average search costs $20 to $30, so this is not something that neighbors use to snoop on another neighbor," said Jeffrey Alperin, Information America's vice president-corporate development. "This is not sneaky kind of stuff; it's all publicly available information."

At Prentice Hall, a 3-month-old people-tracker service allows you to type in a name and -- for 75 percent of the U.S. population -- find that person's address, marital status and whether he or she has ever declared bankruptcy. The company hopes to offer motor vehicle records soon.

Prentice Hall charges $150 to sign up and has a minimum monthly charge of $100.

"We've tripled our database over the last two years, and we now have the largest database of its kind," said Chris Dufault, product manager for the on-line service. "It's amazing what people have done with our services, like we had one employee here who found a former fiance she lost track of 18 years ago."

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