Strange, Troubling Privacy

There’s a new service that will delve into the background of anyone in the US and it’s freaking reporters out, even though it hasn’t launched yet. But you know what’s even freakier? Why reporters hadn’t written about this sooner.

Last summer I was trying to figure out what strange phone area code I missed a call from and one of the Google text ads in my searches was for “USA People Search.” I tried it out on my own name and what I got back astounded me. I tried friends, spouses, ex-lovers, coworkers, and family. Everyone’s entire life story was easy to locate and I would IM friends asking “Did you go to school in Philly back in ’92?” then I would show them how I figured it out and we were collectively freaked out. I never made a post about it because I wasn’t comfortable exposing my life story online, but since it’s in the news I might as well tell you it’s not only as bad as they say it is, but potentially much worse.

The problems these sites present is many: any employer, friend, or foe can examine your life history if they simply know your name and your age. Famous and the non-famous abound on the service. For violent stalkers, this is the goldmine. For a low price you can not only track your victims, but get their phone numbers, addresses, list of all assets, and any tax problems they’ve ever had.

To see how scary it was, I tried it out myself, buying the $40 background plan for one George Walker Bush, a 58 year old from Washington DC and Austin Texas, including a criminal report on every George Bush in the state of Texas found in arrest records. I could see his entire home ownership life history, though the criminal background checks were off and none of his DUIs showed up.

I see these services as a problem, not by profiting from the sale of public data, but that this data gets out in the first place. I’ve had problems in my past with people harrassing me, and for the last 5 years have paid PacBell, SBC, and Verizon several dollars a month to keep my home address, name, and phone number out of phone directories. I read privacy policies when I sign up for services and I drop notes to companies when I disagree with their terms.

I value my privacy, pay for it, and spend some effort maintaining it. When I found out that my most recent address shows up in several of these services, I contacted each and requested that I be removed, to no avail. I believe the only thing tracing me to my two previous addresses are my having signed up with local utilities. At one address, my name wasn’t on the water, electricity, or cable bills, but one of the others must have allowed them to trace the location back to me. I find these services disturbing and wish politicians would draft consumer protection legislation to keep this sort of basic, yet sensitive data from ever getting out. I don’t mind if the police or gov’t need to do background checks, but I’m not comfortable knowing that anyone that’s ever had a beef with me can find me and contact me.