July 25, 2005,
I'm probably less paranoid than most people about my personal information. Not long ago I unblocked my telephone number from appearing on Caller I.D. because I realized it's actually rather pleasant when people pick up the phone knowing it's me; at least I can assume I’ve reached them at a convenient time. Unlike those who feel nervous about shopping habits tracked by supermarket club cards, I don't care who knows I buy a lot of dog food and salad.
And if terrorists find life slightly more inconvenient because of the Patriot Act, great even if that does mean, theoretically, at least, that the government might be able to see what library books I've been checking out.
But is it really a harmless situation that now anyone with Internet access can find out, for free, your age; for a few dollars, your address; and for just a few dollars more, a complete background check? Beyond issues raised by the ChoicePoint scandal, the MasterCard fiasco, and general identity theft, why is complete public access to the particular location of exactly where you live perfectly legal?
It's true that a generation ago, newspapers commonly used to print the addresses of people mentioned in articles, but that's not necessarily because times then were more innocent. Home addresses were only easily available in hometown papers, and then only until the paper itself hadn't been turned into fish wrap. That anyone in the world can now discover your home address with just a few mouse clicks is something completely new and of course fantastically convenient for obsessed maniacs around the world.
This spring a new enterprise called Zabasearch lowered the point of entry even further by displaying the addresses of pretty much anyone for free, as a loss leader for the company's $20 background checks and $100 investigative searches. (Zabasearch plans eventually to charge $10 per home address, standard for the industry, but for now that information remains free.)
"This is the first people finder on the Internet to give away really good quality data," David Lazarus, a San Francisco Chronicle business columnist who often writes about privacy issues, told me. "It's dazzling." Lazarus ran some online searches of his own, and found that Zabasearch owners Robert Zakari and Nicholas Matzorkis happen to have a bizarre connection to the Heaven's Gate suicides.
You may remember that 39 cultists, believing they were about to meet a UFO, killed themselves in a San Diego mansion in 1997. Matzorkis drove a former cult member who'd been sent a farewell videotape to the house where the bodies were discovered. Several cult members had reportedly worked at some point for Matzorkis, who at the time owned a Beverly Hills computer company.
Call me a nervous Nellie, but I don't find any Heaven's Gate's connections reassuring. Nor am I happy that I found out about Zabasearch from a friend who discovered it in a porn-industry chat room. Because he writes (sometimes critically) about the porn biz, this friend has had death threats. And so he was surprised to see his home address which he'd always carefully kept private by using a post-office box for business displayed on Zabasearch for anyone who cared to look.
I ran the names of people I know have had trouble with stalkers through Zabasearch: various celebrities, as well as another worried friend who’s always subscribed to magazines only in the name of her dog. They were all there. I could tell that some of the celebrity addresses were office-production companies, but others looked definitely residential.
This information always has been available in public records unless you bothered to block it, but only recently has it been so easily available; the technology has overtaken existing privacy protections. There's no point anymore, for instance, to defense attorney arguments that Megan's Law is invasive because it allows worried citizens to find out the addresses of sex offenders. Sex offenders can now find out where worried citizens live and they don't need any special law to do it.
Most people, fortunately, are neither crazy nor dangerous. But that's small comfort if you happen to have caught the eye of someone who is. A few years ago in New Hampshire, a man obsessed with a former high-school classmate named Amy Boyer bought her address from a company called Docusearch, tracked her down, and killed her.
Deranged stalkers and Gladys Kravitz-type busybodies used to have to actually leave the house and trek downtown to government record offices if they wanted to snoop. Not any more. I keep waiting for some creative marketing type at one of these online databases to start throwing in a copy of Catcher In the Rye free with every purchase.
My interest in all this isn't strictly academic. Last October, a teacher at my daughter's former high school in trouble with administrators for his inappropriate interest in her and her blog was suspended, quit in a huff, then began creating elaborate websites attacking first my daughter, and then I suppose once he realized that harassing a minor could get him in hot water only me.
Friends who happened upon these sites were particularly alarmed by pictures of schoolgirls being spanked and the pope calling me the anti-Christ. So just to have the information handy in case I needed to call the police, I ran a background check on the guy.
It's amazing what a company like Zabasearch provides for just $20, which I have to admit is a bargain price for such a useful and convenient service. In a few seconds, I had the guy's current and former address, his wife's name, a satellite picture of where they live, and the names, phone numbers, and apartment numbers of several neighbors in their depressing looking neighborhood.
In California, you can now freeze access to your credit-information reports by sending $10 to each of the three major reporting agencies, which I've done. Because my name is fairly unusual and I sometimes appear on TV, this seemed sensible. But opting out of these online databases isn't easy, and they often get information from other sources like utility companies or magazine subscriptions. To their credit, a few online information sellers did remove my information quickly and politely when I asked. But most just kept it up there, even when they said they would remove it. Or they took it out for a while, then put it back.
Zabasearch originally offered an email opt-out, which in my case and my porn-industry friend's was ignored. Now those who wish to be removed from the Zabasearch database must put the request in writing, via the U.S. Postal Service. (First you have to e-mail info-at-zabasearch.com for the street mailing address and instructions information that is no longer available on the website.) My porn-industry friend did this and was finally removed completely; in my case, only one version of my name was deleted I had to write again to completely erase it.
But removing your home address from public view isn't easy, even when a company is apparently trying to cooperate. A representative at another company, for instance, at first lectured me about the Freedom of Information Act, which of course has nothing to do with this situation, but backed down and apologized after I showed him that one of his main competitors had erased my personal information immediately. He seemed sincerely surprised when I complained weeks later that I was still in their records, and suggested that there was a glitch in the system. Eventually, after several more calls and e-mails, I was removed.
I wish I could say that all the personal data about me online, now (as far as I can tell) erased, was wrong. Unfortunately, although in some cases it was mildly off a year or so with a birth date, and not in the right direction; a digit or two in an address it was mostly quite accurate and, as they say, good enough for government work.
Except of course that in this case, it's not the government that's snooping. Maybe some of our concerns now about Big Brother really are misplaced. The real danger could be from a lot of pesky little brothers out to make a quick buck.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.