Cloaks and daggers give way to computers and hackers

Personal Computers

September 16, 1996|By Peter H. Lewis

SPIES HAVE sneaked into our imaginations for eons. While the fascination with espionage is enduring, the business of spying has been transformed completely in recent years by the microchip. Cloaks and daggers have given way to computers and hackers.

Computers now capture and store an incredible amount of detail about our personal and professional lives, including what we buy, what we eat, what we write, whom we call, where we travel, what we earn, where we browse on line, our credit ratings, our medical records and so on.

Computers also greatly increase the speed and ease of gaining access to these public and private data bases. The Internet, in particular, links computers where much of this public but sensitive information resides.

A new book, "Your Personal Netspy," seeks to appeal to the spy within us all. Unlike other books that purport to help citizens and businesses protect their privacy in the computer age, Netspy is a counter-book. The cover of the book promises, among other things, to tell readers "How to find out anything you ever wanted to know about anybody," how to "Make yourself invisible on line" and how to "Learn from professional investigators."

The book's cover is blown, or at least overblown. It is a fascinating satellite-level view of the many options Internet users have to gather information on a variety of topics, but it ultimately fails to deliver on its promises.

For example, one chapter describes how to use the Internet to perform background checks on people, the kind of snooping that was typically handled in the old days by hard-fisted, hard-drinking private detectives. The book offers these cases:

"I want to find out if my fiance has ever been married before."

"My daughter's new boyfriend wants to borrow my car but I want to do a quick check of his driving record first."

"I'm going to rent out my basement to a mild-mannered young man "

"I want to find out if my housekeeper has a criminal past."

In each case, the reader is led down a blind alley. Each of the Internet sites in the "background check" chapter either points the reader to sources of information on how to conduct a background check by phone or mail, or to businesses that charge fees for finding out such questions, or to sites with rather limited data (if your fiance was married in Kentucky before 1993, you are in luck, digitally speaking).

Much of the book consists of long lists of World Wide Web sites and their features, with all the sites and features highlighted by little symbols known as bullets. The hundreds of bullets in "Your Personal Netspy" appear to have been added to the publisher's galley proofs by hand, perhaps by some poor intern using a pen and pencil. It is hardly a reassuring sign in a book that celebrates the power of computers.

Pub Date: 9/16/96

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