May 4, 1998
Don't lose any sleep over online privacy -- It's already too late
Are you concerned about your privacy on the Internet? You should be. But the truth is there may be very little you can do about it.
Much of your personal information is already available in easily searchable form on the Web.
You can take consolation, however, in the fact that the companies you do business with are no less able to hide things than you are.
A matter of public record
Companies and governments have for decades been building databases of personal information on individuals. The Net just makes it easier to get to that information.
For instance, reverse phone books (which list people in numerical order by their phone numbers) used to be hard to come by.
Now, AnyWho, a Web-based phone directory from AT&T, makes finding someone's name and address as easy as entering their phone number on an HTML search form. You'll find this free service at http://www.anywho.com.
That's not all. From any directory listing on AnyWho, a single click displays an area map showing you just where it's located -- down to the block if a street address is available. You can even enter a street name or Zip code, and AnyWho will list everybody in that area or on your block.
Nervous yet? Don't get angry at AT&T; this information has been available for years to anyone patient enough to go look it up.
Of course, the information available is only as complete -- and as accurate -- as what's listed in the phone book. The AnyWho site also offers an option to remove or update your listing if you want.
Even greater depth of information on individuals can be found through KnowX, at http://www.knowx.com. This site provides easy access to many public records, including real estate property transfers and foreclosures, court records, bankruptcy filings, and information on incorporated companies.
Although many basic searches on KnowX are free, some of the information costs a few dollars per record retrieved. Site searches are also exceedingly slow.
These two factors mean that KnowX is not likely to be used by companies looking for new prospects by the hundreds. But if you're looking for a friend or an enemy, or if you're a news reporter or private detective, KnowX can be a powerful tool for locating personal information.
The information accessible through KnowX is all a matter of public record, and such information has been freely available for decades. But, thanks to the Internet, now it's orders of magnitude easier to find.
Power to the people
It's not just consumers whose records are available online. The openness of information that the Internet creates cuts both ways, and makes it easier than ever for consumers to keep tabs on the companies they do business with.
For instance, browse over to The Chemical Scorecard site, at http://www.scorecard.org. This database-driven site operated by the Environmental Defense Fund provides a wealth of information on polluters nationwide. Want to know what companies are releasing toxins into your community? It's as easy as entering your Zip code. You can find out exactly what's been released and what the known toxic effects are, and you can even see a map of your area showing just where the polluting companies are located.
The information in the Scorecard database is derived from the 1995 Toxics Release Inventory. By law, companies that release any of 650 listed chemicals into the environment must report them to the Environmental Protection Agency. Scorecard simply distills this information and makes it easy for individuals to search through it.
As time goes by, expect consumer and environmental action groups to create more such company-tracking services on the Web. Armed with such information, consumers will become more savvy in choosing whom to do business with.
Next week, I'll continue the privacy discussion with an examination of direct marketing practices on the Web.
Meanwhile, I'd like to hear how you feel about your personal and corporate information appearing on the Internet. Write to me at email@example.com.
Dylan Tweney edits InfoWorld's intranet and I-commerce product reviews online and in print.
Missed a column?
It's easy to catch up -- just click here.