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Online data brokers bankign on your identity
By Michael G. Williams
“The information is out there in a variety of forms, but the data brokers gather everything together in order to make one big file on you,” says Melissa Ngo, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. “One of the biggest problems is the fact that the files are wrong”.
|The Internet used to be a technological curiosity; a garnish atop a budding phenomenon called home computing. Now, it’s a fixture so deeply intertwined in our daily lives that we even have it on our cell phones.
The fact that information is power has never been more obvious, but power for whom? Just about anyone who has the money to buy it.
Selling data online
Companies called online data brokers collect massive quantities of Americans’ personal information from public record sources like local and state government agencies and sell the data on the Internet.
With a credit card and anywhere between $7 and $100 in the bank, the most intimate details of a person’s life are readily attainable through a few mouse clicks and keystrokes. This includes utility records, court records, property records, address histories, business records, social security records, state and federal tax records, divorce records, even social security numbers.
And the errors are often egregious. In one instance, MSNBC.com reporter Bob Sullivan purchased a background search on himself from data broker Intelius.com to find that they had incorrectly listed him as a charged child molester. But in an interview with the Tribune, an Intelius representative stated that data packages are compiled with the utmost care.
“What we’re doing is taking (personal data) from (local jurisidictions), and we’re scrubbing out what we consider to be data irregularities or inaccuracies, and then we’re making it more easily accessible,” explains Liz Murray, corporate communications manager for Intelius.
The Erickson Tribune purchased one of Intelius’ “scrubbed” background checks for $49.95, and found that the report contained multiple errors, some potentially damaging to the individual searched. Intelius’ records listed phone numbers at the wrong addresses, relatives that didn’t exist, and charges of handgun and drug possession for a different person with the same name, all within the correct person’s master file.
What’s more, these searches are totally secret. One of the questions on Intelius’ frequently asked questions page is, “Is anyone notified I am searching for them?” They answer, “No one is notified that you are using the Intelius services, including the person you are searching for”.
Murray also assures that, consistent with the policy advertised on their website at www.intelius.com/privacy-faq.php#5, Intelius offers a temporary opt-out service for those individuals who don’t want their data listed and sold. Yet, the Tribune was still able to purchase records that should have been removed after two requests to opt out via fax and phone. Murray declined to comment on this.
But Intelius is just one of many data brokers operating on the Internet. Others, like Searchpublicinfo.com and Bestpeoplesearch.com, make more aggressive claims advertising access to “SSN Records” and “Social Security Number Search from Name and Address.”
Bestpeoplesearch.com claims that SSN searches are available only to those who can provide official documentation such as notarized affidavits and court judgments, but both companies failed to respond to the Tribune’s requests for an interview about how they screen such searches to verify that they are in fact legitimate.
A tragic outcome
Some of these companies will even employ private investigators to actively seek an individual’s personal information. In 1999, data broker Docusearch.com did just that for 21-year-old Liam Youens of New Hampshire. Obsessed with former high school classmate Amy Boyer, Youens contacted Docusearch to track down her work address.
Docusearch’s private investigator obtained the information over the phone by posing as Boyer’s insurance company, a practice referred to as “pretexting.” With the address in hand, Youens drove to Boyer’s place of employment and shot her to death as she left work.
Eight years later, Docusearch is still in business and even made Forbes’ 2007 Best of the Web Directory. “The information is still out there; the data brokers are still out there,” Ngo says.
“We go out and ask for stronger regulations, we file complaints with the FTC, and we seek laws against pretexting, whether in the states or in the federal government, but there are a lot of problems,” she adds.
One is that very little regulation currently exists that would curb the activities of data brokers like Intelius, Docusearch, and SearchPublicInfo. “One of the big issues with which we’re faced is that there’s no single law that deals with data brokers and the information that they cover,” explains Rebecca Kuehn, assistant director for the Division of Privacy and Identity Protection at the Federal Trade Commission.
Nevertheless, some laws are already in place or before Congress that will regulate the way online data brokers do business. Next month’s edition of the Tribune will cover this and more.
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