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Guarding privacy tougher as Internet expands

p-trak September 19, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EDT

From CNN Correspondent Greg Lefevre

(CNN) -- It's a scary prospect: reading about yourself on the World Wide Web. Personal information services can make your birthdate, credit and marital histories and even some medical data available for the world to see.

The information is often available on the Internet before you even have a chance to respond.

"Suddenly, your privacy information is out there," said Mike Godwin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

This week, a flood of e-mail across the Internet warned that personal information was for sale by the Lexis-Nexis Information Service, which owns the P-Trak database of names and addresses.


Giving away social security numbers is "vastly more troubling to people than using the usual privacy infringing information," said Godwin. For a while, Lexis-Nexis sold social security numbers for $80 to $100 per name. But that service is no longer available.

The company, however, continues to offer maiden names and the like to customers via the Internet.

The data isn't new. What is new and what concerns civil libertarians is how easy it is to get it.

"The problem is that you have essentially organizations that willy nilly put a lot of data up on the Net," Godwin added.

Lexis-Nexis offers to remove any name from its list, although it takes about a month. P-Trak is pitched mostly to lawyers and law enforcement agencies. The company says it gets its data from public sources.


"The information that is available is really just an expanded version of the white pages," said Steve Edwards, public information officer for Lexis-Nexis. "The name, an address, up to two previous addresses, a month and a year of birth, the telephone number. That's all."

But there are other personal information services on the Internet more widely available.

Here's a sample: your credit and mental health histories, your prior marriages, your use of medication and the videotapes you rent.

There's always the possibility the information could be wrong.


"We know that those kinds of problems become almost impossible to solve, because if it's on a computer screen it's deemed to be the truth no matter how wrong it is," said Lucas Guttentag of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Last summer, the state of Oregon suspended publishing automobile license plate information, because someone republished it on the Internet.

California quit selling driver's license information after a stalker used the state database to find the address of actress Rebecca Schaeffer; he killed her in 1989. Internet search services make finding addresses a snap, and some will even draw a map to the front door.

The trouble comes when the same information that helps cops find the bad guys is used by the bad guys to hunt victims.


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