Guarding privacy tougher as Internet expands
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
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
"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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