Why You Should Be Worried About Your Privacy on the Web
What else is out there?
Did I find everything that was out there? Private investigator Rambam says the information I gathered in a few days of work was just the tip of the iceberg of what is available about individuals online. Rambam runs PallTech, an investigative database service for law enforcement and security professionals. Its 25 billion records on individuals and businesses include aggregated public records, telephone listings, marketing data, and more sensitive, regulated data such as vehicle registrations.
A single query performs 62 different searches and produces an average of 230 pages of results in 90 seconds, Rambam says. He quickly found my Social Security number, driver's license number, vehicle registrations, date of birth, e-mail address and other information.
PallTech's database isn't open to the public, but Rambam says much of the same information is out there for anyone who's determined to find it. For example, I didn't find my medical records or banking records online; both types of information are regulated. But, says Rambam, "Any competent social engineer can get that information. There's just too many places where it's available."
For instance, Rambam says he once tracked down a subject by calling pharmacies near the person's address, posing as the subject and asking if his prescription was ready. He quickly learned both the name of the prescription and the doctor who prescribed it. By calling the doctor's office, he was then able to get the time and date of the subject's next appointment. While all this is illegal (he did it with the subject's permission, as part of a friendly bet) and he says most professional investigators don't do that today, he's certain that scammers use the technique.
I also didn't find my state of birth or mother's maiden name online, but Rambam says that I could have found the information with a little more work. (For example, I didn't think to look on genealogy Web sites.) "The downside to all of this publicly available information is that it's now a lot easier to social engineer somebody," he says. If someone has access to a profile of personal information about you as well as your network of friends, that makes it easier for someone to pose as you to gain access to more sensitive data.
And much more personal information is tucked away in marketing databases, says Rambam. Data aggregators such as ChoicePoint and Acxiom, he says, maintain giant databases of information about individuals for risk management and marketing purposes.
To find out more, I spoke with Jennifer Barrett, global privacy officer at Acxiom, a large data aggregator and marketing services provider in Little Rock, Ark. Acxiom specializes in helping businesses build complete demographic profiles of their customers. It builds large, proprietary data warehouses that match up the client's marketing data on its customers (what they bought) with "intelligence" on those customers (who they are) that includes demographic data, interests, what types of products the subjects like to buy and so on. (For details, see "How much do marketers really know about you?")
Acxiom and some other data aggregators do allow consumers to request, for a fee, a report summarizing the basic identifying and background screening information that the company has about them in its databases. (Acxiom does not release this information without a signed form and a personal check for $5 with name and address information printed on it that matches the name and address of the subject of the request.) I wanted to find out what details Acxiom had on me, so I made the request (the company waived the fee for the purposes of this story); however, the report I received did not include the full search results.
Interestingly, Barrett cites privacy as the reason Acxiom didn't reveal more of the data it owns about me. Search results often return information on other people who are linked to the subject's data in some way, such as through a common address or phone number. "It divulges details on other individuals and would invade their privacy," she says. But Acxiom does allow consumers to opt out of its marketing databases.