Why You Should Be Worried About Your Privacy on the Web
Source: Paid searches
Information discovered: Address history to 1985; real estate purchase dates, assessed values and mortgagors; 2004 property tax bill; nonprofit affiliations; Flickr account details; published stories; parents' names, address, phone number and first five digits of Social Security numbers; current and past neighbors' names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and first six digits of Social Security numbers
At this point, I decided to invest a little money to see what premium searches would buy me.
Since no one had come up with my cell phone number, I decided to start small, with a US Search reverse phone lookup -- which means you provide the number and the company traces its owner. US Search indicated that the information was available on my number -- for a fee of $14.95.
I pulled out my credit card and purchased the report. US Search could not find any data initially. The next day it sent an e-mail that attributed the phone to "Josh (last name unavailable)." Address information was limited to a town name, which was incorrect. US Search refunded my money.
I tried other sites, also without success. One possible reason why: I never provide my cell phone number online or use it for business transactions.
Things did not go so well with USATrace.com, which claimed to offer an "SSN Search" background report on any Social Security number for $37.99. I had picked the company at random from a long list of businesses that came up after I ran a Google search on "Social Security number trace."
The company processed my transaction, but I received no report. Over the next few days, several phone calls and e-mails went unanswered. I ended up challenging the charge on my credit card bill -- a process that eventually resulted in a refund from American Express. Caveat emptor.
I then approached Intelius, a bigger name that also provides data to business partners such as ZabaSearch. Intelius waived its $49.95 background search charge for the purpose of this story. I requested a few extra bells and whistles, which would have brought the total cost to $77.
Among other things, the report included searches of criminal records, civil judgments, sex offender records, address history, real estate property records and death certificates. Intelius gets its information from public records, marketing databases and information that is scraped off the Web, says Ed Petersen, co-founder and executive vice president at Intelius. Much of the information is purchased from other data providers.
Inaccuracies in the data and the abundance of data on people who were not me made combing through the 67 pages of results a bit of a chore. After removing the irrelevant content, I was disappointed to find that the report contained just one piece of data that I had not found through my previous, free searches: a June 2004 property tax bill in the amount of $1,857.
Despite the fact that I'd entered my address and Social Security number, the bulk of the report consisted of state and federal criminal records of 156 Robert Mitchells from all over the country, none of which were me. It included incorrect names of "relatives" as well as records with my correct phone number attached to the wrong address and vice versa. It did not find my primary legal residence address or phone number at all. (We moved one year ago.) The business records section of the report did not turn up my position at Computerworld or my business phone number.
Intelius did aggregate a lot of data about me that I had already discovered, and might have saved some research time. However, I would still have had to do additional work to resolve the inconsistencies and other errors.
Next I tried a service called ReputationDefender, which tracks both what is being said about you (the MyReputation service; $9.95 per month) and personal information available about you on the Web (MyPrivacy; $4.95 per month). After a few days, the service uncovered my residential phone numbers, information about my work with a nonprofit organization, details of my Flickr account and a couple of Web sites I set up.
Finally, I tried searching public records through LexisNexis. Computerworld's subscription includes a search function that combines data from public records databases ranging from motor vehicle records to court documents to hunting and fishing licenses. While much of the information LexisNexis returned was the same as what I'd found previously, it produced more information overall, and data accuracy was somewhat better.
I came away with a listing of past and present neighbors' addresses, phone numbers and partial Social Security numbers and a historical list of my real estate property transactions that included the amount paid, date of purchase and mortgage lender name. I found the assessed value for my residence for the year 1997. Also available: my mother's and father's names, ages, address, phone number and partial Social Security numbers.
While LexisNexis allows voter registration list searches, no information appeared for my name in New Hampshire. Voter registration lists have been consolidated into a central database to meet federal requirements. Currently, that database is exempted from New Hampshire's Right-to-Know Law, but legislators have given the Democratic and Republican parties exclusive access to it, says New Hampshire State Representative and privacy advocate Neal Kurk, a Republican.
"The parties take this information and sell it to candidates, and you can be sure that a disc containing all of this information goes to various marketers or charities or whoever," he says. So far, though, it wasn't accessible to me.
I also could have searched for other, more sensitive data, such as driver's license and motor vehicle registrations, on LexisNexis. Access to that data is controlled by government regulations, but to see it I simply had to pick a "permissible" use (litigation, debt recovery, insurer, etc.) from a drop-down list. While LexisNexis' terms and conditions do state that it keeps track of who has accessed regulated data, as far as I could tell, anyone can conduct a search without any verification of a permissible use claim.