Privacy is an illusion.
Empty your pockets. Do you have a driver's license, social security card, and membership to a club or video store? How about a coupon card to the local food store? Your name and numbers, showing intimate details of your life, are for sale. Whether they are resold to the marketing departments or are recorded by the government. Your tastes, quirks, dreams, and sometimes identity are for sale.
Personal data has always been a tool of the marketing savvy. Marketing experts can determine what I purchase week to week and target me with advertisements based on my past purchases. Coincidence? No, it's all in the data. On the web it's done with cookies. Cookies are small files inserted on your harddrive that help to track you as a customer so that the vendors can push similar websites in your direction. However, in the real world vendors track purchases through credit card transactions and information you offer. What you do and buy in the past will determine what is forced on you in the future. Where you shopped, vacationed, ate last at.

In addition, your food coupon cards reveal what sort of food have you bought in the last month. Are you on a diet? Do you buy cartons of cigarettes? What about your medical records? Are those for sale too?
Certain information, public and private, has always been available. With the explosion of the Internet, and the increased use of credit card purchasing, the information is more readily available to a larger audience.

Public information has always been available for those who knew where to write, and what to ask for. Things like your home, car, boat, dog, marriage, phone #s, law suits, bankruptcy, professional affiliations and death records are the tip of the iceberg of public domain information.

Private information such as your financial records can be obtained by numerous legitimate businesses with an interest and access to the right databases. In most cases it will be another credit card agency checking out your payment history to see if you are a potential customer for them. In the worst case scenario it's rather easy for unscrupulous persons to also see that data . In order to release your data credit agencies require a signature from you permitting the release of your records. Unfortunately, forgery is all to easy to do in this instance.

National Association
of Legal Investigators

National Association
of Investigative Specialists

The Specialists
Depending on who you are will tell you who has access, or wants it to your information. The information is available, both legally and illegally to anyone with a desire to find out more about you. As a society we've already seen what journalists can do with private information. Not a politician goes unexamined in today's media industry. Who else is digging the dirt up on you?

Legally financial records can be made available to licensed or certified Investigators (depending on the state/country). (Legislation today made me re-write that sentence several times. Privacy vs. access is being weighed in Congress at this writing.) Investigators and information brokers that deal in background searches specialize in online research, phone interviewing, paper chasing, and finding information. Rooted in hardnose and relentless searching techniques, they were some of the first users of online databases, accessing public records via a computer, an account, and a modem. Investigators learned that by applying the same investigative logic used on the street, they were able to adapt to the online world quickly. Once the Internet became a primarily WWW based graphical environment the Investigative industry was already exploiting the finer points of Internet research. You will see many articles about private information, and the access that private eyes, and information brokers have. Unfortunately a few bad Investigators that may be unlicensed and/or unscrupulous have made a bad name for the industry. For the most part Investigators spend a good deal of their time, personal resources, and effort fighting legislation and bad press in order to keep their industry clean from frauds and bad PI's. The Dick Tracy shroud of mystery that envelopes this industry can often hide the real head lining news like; scam disclosures, deadbeat dads discovered, and projects like Homefires (an International consortium of online PI's that volunteer their time to locate missing children).

The skills Investigators have honed can be used to obtain anything from your financial records to actual video of you in action. Anything and everything about you is possible. Even though laws are in place to protect privacy not everyone may be aware that they are violating your privacy during the course of their day. What if a new receptionist at your physician's office gets a phone call verifying the information from your last doctor's appointment? Who was she/he talking to? A simple phone call, using the right tactics (known as pretexting or social engineering) can spill a lot of information.

Other than social engineering where do these Investigators get the information from? The core resource for a good deal of information comes from databases. However not everything is online (YET!) and a good deal of the research is still done through phone calls, and visiting local courthouses.




Yahoo - Credit Reporting Agencies

What matters in research of this type is the sort of data you wish to acquire? Financial, criminal, division of motor vehicle, or medical.
  If it's your credit history, the big three have a say in your information, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. These credit histories can reveal your entire financial history. The good news is you can request your own history for a small fee (less than $10.00). The bad news is that your new or current employer can also request the same history. Do you remember signing any waivers when you were hired? Perhaps what you signed gave them permission to do a complete background check of you. That would include a financial background. This sort of background check can also be provided through an credit reporting agencies, with the consent of the person being researched. Illegally a faked consent form can be forged and sent to one of these agencies online. For a demonstration of this see "Net Confidential" by Matt Rosoff. Rosoff was able to get the full history of his co-worker through the Internet.
  Medical data is a little harder for the average citizen to obtain. A super sleuth can uncover this highly confidential data with a few phone calls, and a lot of experience in pretexting (a savvy term for bluffing your way through conversation). If the person on the other end of the line, a clerk, or temporary employee not up on privacy may happily banter your private information away. Medical information that applies to workman's compensation, a lawsuit, or holding any legal implications may also be filed in court house documents. These documents are public records, open to those who have the time and skill to research them out.
"Obtaining your record from MIB is your right under federal law.
Write: MIB
P.O. Box 105
Esses Station
Boston, MA 02112

Call: 617/426-3660
MIB has 10 to 20% of insurance applicants."*
*(Better Homes and Gardens Sept. 94)
Medical information is the same as financial information. Technically a signed statement by you has to be available for a doctor to release your data to a lawyer, another doctor or you. However HMO's have created a whole new behemoth to be feared. Doctors are now required through several HMO's to disclose your medical history to the insurance agencies so that they can "best serve your needs." If you last physical was poor, your doctor may note that you are under too much stress, smoking too much, or have had an embarrassing incident with the car door. It's all there.
  The fastest track to this data is to hire a specialist, who already has access to such data, via a database. That person should be qualified and licensed (or certified depending on the state). The Internet has thousands of these types of professionals who do daily background checks for an equal number of businesses. More and more businesses are now requiring your life history for even a simple job. This is do to the business insurance pressure pushing higher premiums for high-risk employees. On the good side this sort of background checking has saved many businesses from hiring dangerous or irresponsible employees. For example if you wished to hire a nanny for your child, wouldn't you want the agency that you go through to provide you a guarantee that your nanny has no drug or arrest history. Equally as important you would not wish to forgo a background check on the school bus driver. The retail industry looses millions of dollars every year to employee theft. What can a police background check on those perspective hires save the customer in the long run?
The bad side of the argument is that if you're the person being investigated you can feel very exposed by such an intrusion on your life. From the year of 18 your actions are recorded for world to see. How can you avoid exposure? There is a detailed list in the end, however living through a cash based existence, owning nothing, and never seeking public exposure through medical care, financial assistance, and home ownership are a good start.
  Some of the sites.

Search Services and Mega-Sites

An excellent, easy to search, inexpensive database search engine of public records.
CDB Infotek
Similar to Knowx. I have not tried this database myself, but I hear many agencies and Investigators use it.
Free searches
One of those mega-lists that give great leads to state business and personal databases that are free and on the web.
C.I.S. Investigative Resources
Designed by an investigative firm, that didn't miss a trick or a link on the 'net.
Black Book Online
An online investigator's handbook to resources and tools on the Internet. The author certainly did his homework.
Rutger's Univ. Ready Reference
Everything is here. It is especially useful for New Jersey digging. is a genealogists mecca. For the everyday searcher, Ancestry explains in detail the laws that govern public record state to state.

In the News
US News Sources
Top 100 News
US News
Excite US News
World News
Excite World News
World News
Online News
Deja News

Learn more about fee based databases.
Direct Marketing Association

To remove yourself from mailing and phone lists by marketing persons.

For mailing lists
D.M.A. Mail
Preference Service
P.O. Box 9008
Farmingdale, N.Y.

For phone lists
D.M.A. Telephone
Preference Service
P.O. Box 9014
Farmingdale, N.Y.

Protect Yourself

Simple facts will keep you safe.

  • Don't give out your personal information, your address, your social security number.
  • Be wary of a good deal, free offers, and online freebie services.
  • Be careful of what you write now, it may be recorded for all time and then pulled up in the future.
  • Don't flame, rant or rave. If your hot enough to scream, do that. Cool down and be professional on the 'net.
  • Pay for things with cash.
  • Order your own credit report and see who has been looking into your credit history.
  • Use encryption programs for you e'mail correspondence.
  • Use a remailer for joining chats and listserves that might embarrass you if found out.
  • Use Anonymizer for researching websites of the same nature.
More information.
Matt Rosoff article
Net Confidential- Protect yourself
Use remailers and Anonymous browsers
E'mail Remailers
Cookie Cutters
Privacy Exchange
Computer Privacy Digest

© by Cynthia Hetherington, MLS
Monday, September 21, 1998