What the Web knows about you

How much private information is available about you in cyberspace? Social Security numbers are just the beginning.

She had me at hello ... or just about. Our conversation had barely started when privacy activist Betty Ostergren interrupted me to say that she had found my full name, address, Social Security number and a digital image of my signature on the Web.

I had set out to discover just how much information I could find about myself online, and Ostergren, who runs the Virginia Watchdog Web site, was my very first call. If this was what could be uncovered in just a few minutes, what else would I find? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

What information is available about you in cyberspace? Where does it come from? What risks does it present and what, if anything, can you do to protect yourself? To answer those questions I decided to use my own identity, Robert L. Mitchell, a national correspondent at Computerworld, as my research subject.

Starting with the information Ostergren had turned up about me, I spent a few weeks combing through more than two dozen public and private resources on the Web and visiting many other Web sites to build a dossier on myself. I conducted both free and paid searches. I contacted a private investigator for tips on my investigation. And I spoke with data aggregators and privacy experts.

I quickly discovered that while the quantity of publicly available information about individuals to be found online is vast, it is riddled with inaccuracies. For example, I changed my primary residence more than a year ago, but many databases online still have my old address. In other cases, the information is just plain wrong.

Having a common name like Robert Mitchell -- or a famous one like Bill Gates -- makes the job a lot harder. While nuggets of information about you can be pulled up quickly, filtering out all of the data that is not actually about you and sorting out what is accurate is time-consuming. It requires a lot of digging.

But I was starting with a key piece of data -- my Social Security number -- and that makes finding relevant data a bit easier. As I gathered more data, I also reran many searches to get different -- and more targeted -- results. Here's what I found and where I found it.

Source: Government records

Information discovered: Full legal name, address, Social Security number, spouse's name and Social Security number, price paid for home, mortgage documents, signature

Much of the publicly available information on individuals online is sourced from online county, state and federal government records databases, and this is where Ostergren found my Social Security number. She hadn't purchased it from a hacker chat room or from shady characters in Russia. She got it by browsing an image of a mortgage document stored in a county database located in a building half a mile from my house.

Over the past five years, bulk scanning and online publishing of such documents have proliferated in many states. In many cases, including New Hampshire -- my state of residence -- little or no attempt has been made to redact sensitive personal data such as Social Security numbers before moving those records online. The public is blissfully unaware that these documents, which were once accessible only in dusty books inside the walls of the registry of deeds, are now freely available over the Web to anyone in the world with a click of a mouse.

Ostergren says that this information is a treasure trove for data aggregators, brokers and criminals. Unlike financial and medical records, which are regulated, Social Security numbers gathered from public records come with no strings attached. They can be republished anywhere with impunity. "You're in a state that is spoon-feeding Social Security numbers to everybody," Ostergren says.

In the county where I live, legal documents from 1975 and on have been scanned and placed for public viewing on the Web. No registration or payment is required to view those records, although there is a charge to print official copies. The database includes thousands of records on New Hampshire citizens, including tax liens, federal liens, divorce papers, financing statements, military discharge papers, death certificates -- even a mobile home warranty. Any legal document filed with the registry is fair game.

In these records I found names, addresses, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, signatures, children's names, educational backgrounds, blood types, work histories and other personal data. Newer mortgage documents no longer contain Social Security numbers (mine was from 2001), but many other documents still do -- including death certificates and tax liens. In my case, fortunately, just one document on file -- the old mortgage -- contained my Social Security number.

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