Privacy is nothing more than road kill on fabulous information superhighway

September 23, 1996|By Mike Littwin

WE LIVE IN the time of the information superhighway, which is a wonderful thing because, from the privacy of your own home, all you need is a modem and some software and you can spend quality computer time with, say, Nelson Mandela's Web page or, more likely, Pamela Anderson Lee's.

But there is a danger on this road to limitless possibility, including the danger of too many highway metaphors.

Here's one: If you look closely on the shoulder of the information superhighway, you might find your own personal privacy scattered there like so much road kill.

This issue is all the rage on the Internet (also, possibly, in the halls of the AAA).

The controversy began this way. Somebody sent out a message on the 'Net accusing Lexis-Nexis, the online database company, of collecting Social Security numbers and making them available to whoever wants them -- for a price, of course.

As it turns out, Lexis-Nexis is basically innocent. On what the company calls its P-Trak Person Locator Service, it used to include Social Security numbers as part of its information package. But the company bosses had a change of heart after only nine days of offering the numbers and then stopped.

I looked up my own name to see what they did offer.

In less than a minute's time, the computer spit out my name, address, previous address, month and year of birth and my (unlisted) phone number.

Not so innocent, maybe, but not so dangerous either, if you don't count the fact that I pay the phone company not to publish my number.

But at this newspaper, and at other companies across America, we have access to a lot more information about you, and about me. You know all about the credit companies. I was once late on my mortgage payment -- two weeks late. I thought I'd paid it, but the bill was in the glove compartment -- really.

And so the mortgage company, in panic, called the credit boys, even though I'd never been even 15 hours late before.

The credit company knee-breakers didn't call me and ask if I'd left the bill in the glove compartment. They called my neighbors, who were asked if I still lived in the house. The neighbors thought I was being investigated for a major crime, which, if you think about it, doesn't seem all that unlikely. Since, as far as I knew, I was innocent of all, well, major crimes, I had no idea why I was being investigated until one day I opened the glove compartment and found the mortgage bill.

The bill collectors knew my neighbors and their phone numbers and weren't shy about using that information.

I can get the same information. By using a system called Database Technologies Auto Track Plus, which we buy here at the paper, I can find your neighbors. I can find their phone numbers.

I can find your phone number, too, of course.

But the information flow doesn't stop there. I can learn, as an example, your mail route.

And your Social Security number.

And where you used to live. And if you use an alias. If you pilot a plane. What cars you own. What properties you own.

I can find your mother's maiden name and her Social Security number, too.

If you live in Florida, where the privacy laws are particularly liberal, I can find if you have a gun license, if you've filed for bankruptcy, if you have any liens against you, if you have a criminal record. It's all public record, but how long would it take to compile those records? Now it's at your fingertips.

I called the company to see who can purchase this information.

I talked to somebody in marketing, who referred me to someone in sales, who gave me the president's administrative aide, who said I'd have to talk to the president.

They seemed -- how should I put it -- secretive.

The administrative aide did tell me that only certain companies can buy their service and that you have to fill out an application. She said she didn't know what the criteria were.

Presumably the president knows, but he didn't call back. Later I learned from the Poynter Institute, which studies the media, that the service is available to law enforcement, those in the insurance industry, private investigators and the media.

When you call up this information on your computer, you have to agree, by signaling that you agree, not to use the information to establish credit or to injure any party. The information is to be used in the normal course of business, whatever that is.

Here's what I know.

If I know your name, in a matter of seconds, I can find out much more about you than you wish I could. And there's no telling what I might do with the information.

And it's all legal.

And it's all there on the superhighway. Just follow the road signs.

Pub Date: 9/23/96

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