Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Privacy Experiment

By Joseph Westfall

It started with the name-first and last. That was all. The people finding service at Switchboard.com (www.switchboard.com) supplemented the information, with full address, telephone number, and middle initial. An additional Switchboard search, on the same last name and address yielded another individual of the same name. From this information, I presumed that the second individual was a relative of the target subject, perhaps a child, spouse, or parent.

Providing the target's full name and address to Knowx (www.knowx.com), in addition to a $7.45 fee, I was soon to receive real property tax assessor information. This included an appraisal of the residence, a rough description (style, number of beds/baths, heating apparatus, etc.), and the amounts of loans taken out on the house.

Moving on to more expensive databases, I used the Sherlock people finding service at the American Information Network, Inc. (www.ameri.com). For the target's name and address, and a $22.00 fee, they returned quite a bit of information. This included the target's social security number, age, birthmonth, and birthyear. In addition, there was a list of previous addresses, previous residents of those addresses, neighbors at those addresses, neighbors at the present address, and their names and phone numbers. To top it all off, they confirmed my suspicion about the additional person listed at the residence, providing her age, social security number, and the fact that all of her previous addresses matched the target's.

Using the Yahoo! Map service (www.yahoo.com), I found that the target's city of residence was closest to San Jose, California. I searched the San Jose Mercury News Library (www.sjmercury.com), and found one article from 1993 mentioning a person with the target's name and city of residence. This article identified the target as the Scoutmaster of a Boy Scout Troop. A telephone call to the Santa Clara County Council of the BSA (408-280-5088) asking to contact the target-providing only his name and city of residence, and never identifying myself-confirmed that the person in the article and the target had the same telephone number. I concluded from this that they were the same person, and identified the target as a Boy Scout leader.

A free e-mail search at Infoseek (www.infoseek.com) turned up yet another person sharing the target's last name and city of residence. This person was identified by first, middle and last names, city and state of residence, two e-mail addresses, as well as identifying the individual as a current student at an university in the mid-West and a past student at a public high school in the target's city of residence. I thought it safe to presume this person to be another family member.

A final stop at Infinity Information (www.iinet.com) rounded out the information experiment. For the target's name and social security number, the results of civil and criminal records searches were sent to me via e-mail. Unsurprisingly for a Scoutmaster, the target's record was clean. The fee for both searches was $25.00.

The total cost of the experiment was $54.45. From start to finish, the project took ten days. With more time and money, I would be able to discover a great deal more about the target. Although most driving record searches require the target's driver license number, the search service at Docusearch (www.docusearch.com) would provide the target's driving record for $29.00 without the license number. Background Check International (www.bcint.com) was willing to locate the information on the target's birth, marriage, and change of name certificates for an unspecified fee. Other search and database services abound. Many can be found on Yahoo! (www.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/ Companies/Information). Most require payment of some sort, often around $20-30. Although this experiment did not seek it, marketing information is also widely available. Everything from the items one purchases to the average amount one spends grocery shopping is stored in marketing data warehouses.

It was never required that I specify my reasons for desiring the information about the target. Most services only required my name and e-mail address for identification purposes, although some did ask for additional information, such as address and telephone number. At no point in any of the search procedures was I alerted to the fact that I might be breaking the law, and so assumed that everything I did was legal. Some electronic stalkers are not so cautious. If I had been willing to knowingly lie about my identity or misrepresent my motives, other forms of information, including the target's credit report, would have been available to me.

It should be noted that the target is not online. He has no access to the Internet, neither e-mail nor the World Wide Web. All of the information collected during the course of the experiment had been entered into computer databases from regular public and private records. Many individuals who have no or limited access to the Internet feel some security on that basis; this is probably a false security. Had the target been online, it is likely that far more information could have been gathered in as much time.

Note from webmaster: This article was edited in 2003. Some of the links included in the article were no longer functioning. Links falling under this category were removed.

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