Internet Search Engines— nosy neighbors from hell

Published on March 27, 2011 by

They may already know everything about you—your age, where you live, how much you earn, and your mother’s maiden name. And they include anyone and everyone who has access to a computer.

Welcome to the age of Big Brother for the masses.

People search engines including mylife.com, intelius.com, zabasearch.com, spokeo.com and many other sites can dig up the basics on anyone for free in a matter of seconds. Add on fees for more advanced searches and anything from health records to criminal histories on next-door neighbors, potential employees, or future sons-in-laws can be retrieved.

These sites—unlike Google or Bing actually troll public records and snoop into personal information that once only law enforcement agencies or private investigators could access.

And because these search engines use public records, obtaining them is perfectly legal.

Zabasearch.com, for example, collects property and Department of Transportation records, information from utility and cable companies, and files from state courts—more than enough information for anyone looking to open a credit card in someone else’s name.

Zabasearch provides birthdates, addresses over the past 10 years, and even unlisted phone numbers. For under 20 bucks at intellius.com you can snoop into your girlfriend’s banking information and even get a social security number. Other sites will sell you a map to a private home and provide overhead satellite access for a photograph of the neighborhood.
While this may be considered must-know information for the one doing the snooping, it’s nothing short of horrifying for the one being snooped upon.

Outraged citizens have begun filing lawsuits to stop the practice and lawmakers have introduced bills to halt the flow of information that can be used by criminals to access bank accounts or for the purpose of identity theft.

Another area of concern is mobile apps on smart phones, with id numbers that are basically super cookies that track browsing, collect data, and sells it to third parties. And it can’t be blocked or deleted.

But fear not for long. There are two separate bills that have been recently introduced at the federal level. The House Do Not Track bill proposes to direct the Federal Trade Commission to make it possible for consumers to opt out of having their personal data stored, sold or tracked, similar to the Do Not Call list.

The second bill would require companies to get permission from consumers before their information is shared—the same type of agreement Facebook recently signed onto.

California Democrat Jackie Speier, author of the Do Not Track Me Act, also introduced a bill that would allow consumers to prohibit their banks and other financial institutions from sharing personal information with third parties.

The bill has not reached the full Senate as of yet.

In December, Senator Richard Blumenthal provided his testimony to the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, which held a hearing on do-not-track proposals.

“Congress should implement the closest possible Internet equivalent of the do-not-call list, enabling consumers to say a simple ‘no’ to snoopers,” Blumenthal said in his testimony. “Options may include an opt in, requiring sites to obtain specific permission to track and sell data or buttons on Internet browsers that consumers could push requiring sites not to collect information.”

As Conn. Attorney General, Blumenthal called on Congress to:

  • Require the Federal Trade Commission to adopt rules governing the conduct of any entity that collects data than can be directly linked to a specific consumer, computer or other device, including data collected in online contexts, and regardless of whether the entity interacts directly with the consumer;
  • Require any entity collecting such personal information – or which collected such information prior to the establishment of an opt-in authorization — to provide a clear, concise notice of the collection and use of such information;
  • Prohibit any entity from collecting such personal information unless the consumer affirmatively authorizes such collection and use for marketing purposes;
  • Prohibit any entity that has previously collected such personal information from using or disseminating such information unless the consumer affirmatively authorizes such collection and use for marketing purposes;
  • Enact the same civil penalties for the unauthorized collection or use of private consumer information as contained in the Do Not Call law – an unfair or deceptive trade practice and a fine of up to $16,000 per violation.

“Holding Internet data indefinitely is deeply disturbing and disquieting—a 1984ish nightmare,” said Blumenthal. “Internet trackers should be required to routinely dump data, as well as inform users what information they collect and how it is used and obtain an opt in.”

Unlike the U.S., many European countries already have comprehensive laws that forbid all businesses as well as government agencies from sharing information without permission.

The FTC has endorsed do-not-track tools, but suggested that browsers might implement the feature of their own volition. Google, Mozilla and Microsoft announced do-not-track features for their browsers shortly after an FTC report came out in December.

Several consumer and privacy groups have advocated for changes to the law in order to keep up with the information age. But there are also measures that individuals can take on their own.
Aside from limiting the amount of information you share with social networks, think twice before filling out applications, warranty and membership cards. Sometimes just searching sites such as mylife.com will automatically load your information online.

Try visiting search site engines to see which have your personal data stored. In most cases you can contact the company directly and have your information deleted. Some sites allow you to simply request removal via email but more often you must snail mail or fax your full name, date of birth, home and email address, phone number, and copy of diver’s license with a written request to be removed. Certain companies request a print out of the information they have posted on you. Usually within a few weeks of making the request your name will begin to fade from search engines.

There are also companies that will do the work for a fee—among them mypublicinfo.com that charges five dollars per month to scrub your info from the Web. Abine.com/deleteme and reputation.com. will make you disappear as well. The Internet Advertising Bureau has a free opt-out service, which allows you to switch off tracking cookies across many ad networks. Think of these providers as reverse publicists.

“The Internet is a force for good and progress, but can threaten privacy and liberty,” Blumenthal concluded. “Powerful protections are vital to prevent spying on Internet users.”

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