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The Grill: Privacy is a thing of the past, says private investigator

Private eye Steven Rambam explains what he does, how he knows everything about you and why he's not the one you should be worried about.

By Robert L. Mitchell
October 10, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - In his 25 years in business, Steven Rambam has worked on some high-profile cases, including tracking down Nazi war criminals in Canada. He also owns PallTech, an investigative database service with more than 25 billion records on U.S. citizens and businesses.

What do you do as a private investigator?

We are not the traditional Rockford or Magnum, P.I. type of investigator. We'll do very difficult missing persons cases, a lot of sophisticated financial fraud work, a lot of insurance company work, a lot of disappearances.

What's in your PallTech databases?

We have pretty much every American's name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, telephone number, personal relationships, businesses, motor vehicles, driver's licenses, bankruptcies, liens, judgments -- I could go on and on.

Who has access to your data?

This is a database that's restricted to law enforcement, private investigators, security directors of companies and people who have a genuine need.

How do you safeguard it?

The most restrictive rule is my own personal ethics. In 20 years, we haven't had a single lawsuit or complaint.

What has changed in the past few decades?

Two things. The first is computing power. I have in my office storage and databases and artificial intelligence scripts and behind-the-scenes links that are far more powerful and comprehensive than J. Edgar Hoover's wildest dreams.

Dossier

Text about this image
Name: Steven Rambam
Title: Founder and CEO
Organization: Pallorium Inc.
Location: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Favorite technology: "E-mail with attachments. I don't think I've turned on my fax machine in years."

If he wasn't in this business, he'd probably be: A reporter.
Number of times he's been shot at on the job: "It's bad karma to count."
Favorite nonwork pastime: Anything on or near the water.
Philosophy in a nutshell: Do the right thing, no matter the personal cost.
Favorite vice: "I'm not going to tell you. I can assure you that it's not chocolate."
Favorite movie: "Ruggles of Red Gap, about a butler who is gambled away by a British lord and relocates with his new master to Montana. It's the most patriotically positive movie ever made about America."

The other thing is the mind-boggling level of self-contributed data. The average person now willingly puts on the Internet personal information about himself that 20 years ago people would hire an investigator to try and get. It's extraordinary. If you know how to use the Internet, 75% of an investigation can be conducted sitting in your pajamas.

Do you see this as a bad thing?

On the contrary, there are good reasons for most of this to be out there. It's not out there because these are nefarious, evil people trying to be the new Big Brother. It's because this is truly a new engine of capitalism. Where it gets a little creepy is when they aggregate all of this data together and have an extraordinary profile of you.

How can businesses protect their intellectual capital, particularly when it's in electronic form?

You can have five firewalls in a safe room with the most current locks monitored by 24/7 motion-detecting, IP-addressable cameras, and all of that is meaningless if a 16-year-old kid can social-engineer a root password out of you. The downside to all of this publicly available information is that it's now a lot easier to social-engineer somebody.



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