Privacy and the red pill

Let's face it. Your privacy really doesn't exist. For a few bucks anyone can get the details of your life. What can be done to get our privacy back?

In the column prior to last week and the one before that I discussed the dubious world of debt collecting and how your privacy is more or less completely violated by the credit reporting industry. I finished the first column suggesting that it might be a good idea to "get off the grid." I now think a better description might be to "get out of the Matrix." Red pill anyone?

Reader Brian Poirier, a private investigator in Houston, wrote regarding the database he uses, LexisNexis, which he tells me is one of the biggest and used by most law firms and many private investigators. Poirier offered to see what he could find about my wife and me -- something that he wrote would "take perhaps five minutes." Of course, I had to see what he could find.

The next day Poirier sent me the reports. He explained, "Since I don’t have full identifiers on you, I just did a search for Mark Gibbs in California: 96 possibles. So I looked at the Whois for and noted an address in Ventura . . . Mark Gibbs in Ventura showed four matches – one had that same address as the whois. That report is attached. Then [I looked] for someone close in age to you that shares addresses [which] revealed your wife. That report is also attached."

In the reports were my Social Security number (with the last four digits redacted), date of birth, name variations, the date my Social Security number was issued, everywhere I had lived since moving to the United States along with the census data for each area, who my mortgages were with for each property and the price I paid, the current owner of each property, my neighbors’ details, my mother’s name (17 years ago I had a credit card issued to her), and a list of "associated persons" (people who might have some kind of relationship with me), which included my wife’s uncle in North Carolina who I have never met or even spoken to on the phone! And there was even more detail on my wife’s report!

Now just consider that all this data about me had been compiled, without my permission, is mostly correct, highly detailed and available to anyone for a few dollars. That absolutely underlines the problem that the few privacy laws we have are at best weak and at worst ineffectual -- just consider how easily the Bush administration got the telcos to roll over and give up your data.

Two weeks ago I quoted reader Don Dickerson and his comments bear repeating: "There is no way off the grid . . . unless you just want to be a hermit and live in a hole somewhere. Computers were released to the world, the Internet tied them together, [now] Pandora’s box is wide open and the data has already hit the rotary oscillator."

In order to have the benefits of our modern life the commercial world gets to define the terms and we've been recorded, tabulated, and filed since we were born (or emigrated here). The truth is that there really is no way out of the Matrix short of becoming a vagrant or dying.

What can we do to free ourselves from the Matrix? Is there a red pill? A couple of readers suggested that if you can’t refuse to provide information perhaps the answer is to be so open, to provide so much data, that the various database companies are overwhelmed. As interesting as that sounds it won’t work because only a few of us would care enough to do such a thing.

No, the answer, my friends, is to be as vocal as you can be in supporting any and all data privacy laws. Who would have guessed that the red pill was, in fact, made out of politics?

Learn more about this topic

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.