Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Big brother is watching

Jerry Stratton, May 11, 2005

I’ve just heard about a new people-search that threatens to be a new “big brother”.

Did you know there is a free, public web site where anyone with an Internet connection and five seconds to spare can type in your name and instantly get your home address, home telephone number and birth date? Two mouse clicks and they're staring at a satellite photo of your house. By coughing up just $20, they can do a background check on you, including a 20-year address history, all your current telephone numbers, bankruptcies, legal judgments, current and previous property ownership, names and addresses of your relatives and other information.

This warning is a little over the top. My address was far out of date and the "birth date" is just the month and the year.

I find it hard to get worked up over something like this. All they are doing is taking public information and cross-referencing it in public. This has been possible for a long time, it just hasn’t been done in the public eye. Most of this stuff is just phonebook information.

To the extent that it isn’t, however, the problem is not that this company is making this public data available publicly. The real problem is that there is information about us that should be private but isn’t, and that there is information about us that is cross-referenceable but shouldn’t be.

Whenever your social security is asked for, whenever your driver’s license is asked for, this information is stored in a way that makes it easy to cross reference that data with any other data that also includes such a unique ID. Non-unique but uncommon identifiers such as addresses and phone numbers can also be used.

Protecting against privacy infringements like this means more than just requiring opt-outs and letting people refuse to provide social security numbers. It means disallowing social security numbers for anything other than social security, and disallowing the storage of social security numbers--or any other such identifier--along with any information that is not absolutely required to be stored with whatever data the company actually needs.

Companies that we need to do business with shouldn’t be able to sell or otherwise disseminate any of our information just because we didn’t opt out. They should be required to specifically and affirmatively gain our permission to opt us in.

Because otherwise there is no privacy. A single mistake, on our part, on those companies’ parts, or on their affiliates’ parts, puts our information into the public eye. And once it is there, all we can do is run around trying to stamp it out whenever it shows up in another public database.

It’s easier to complain about instances like this where some company takes public information and makes it public, but if we really care about this as a privacy issue, we need to block the source of this public data: we need to make sure our private data remains private, and we need to make sure that when our private data becomes public, it cannot be easily cross-referenced with other private or public data.

So if this bothers you, then complain the next time someone in Congress brings up a national ID. And complain now that social security numbers are being used for more than social security. And complain about toothless privacy laws that require only opt-out to use your information. But complaining about companies that make public information public will do no good; at best, nothing will happen. At worst, the companies will simply take the information off-line so that you can’t see what they are doing and what they have on you. The public information will still be there and will still be cross-referenceable.

It is time we decided what we want to be public about ourselves, what we want to be private, and how we want to control that information. We cannot rely on easily-accessible information not being accessed.

  1. <- Social Security Reform
  2. Misplaced Compassion ->