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The Web Is Watching, and You Are the Target

Boom in peddling of personal information is a worry

September 22, 1996

The panic began with the claim that Lexis-Nexis, a huge player in the information database business, would allow strangers access, at little cost, to anyone's Social Security number, mother's maiden name, credit and medical histories and personal financial information, just the sorts of data that could let a huckster track you down or a crook almost enter your skin. This, no surprise, resulted in one of the loudest public outcries of the Computer Age. It was a powerful message to the big players of the information world.

The charge, initially spread by anonymous electronic mail over the Internet, turned out to be inaccurate. Lexis-Nexis spokesmen said that the company's new P-Trak database would not allow access to a person's credit or medical histories or any other highly personal data, but a spokesman did acknowledge that the service had allowed clients to obtain Social Security numbers for some individuals using only their names. That practice had been halted after earlier complaints, the spokesman said.

What is obtainable from the database are a person's current and former addresses and birth date. That left Lexis-Nexis with a public relations nightmare and a deluge of requests from people who want their names and information removed from the database altogether. The company says it will accede to such requests.

The episode illustrated a growing sense of unease over the loss of privacy, particularly by electronic means, and the apparently easy access to information that was once very difficult and time-consuming to obtain. What was the public responding to? Examples abound:

* Computer hackers have created a new form of graffiti, not on walls but on the federal government's Internet Web pages. For instance, designating the CIA site the "Central Stupidity Agency." So what if the site is just an electronic bulletin board; if someone has the nerve to toy with the CIA, how secure is the World Wide Web?

* The Kentucky Department of Education--inadvertently, it says--posted on the Internet the names, bank account numbers or Social Security numbers of nearly 80 school system employees. And a company that guaranteed that all internal electronic mail communication would remain confidential and privileged used an e-mail message to fire an employee; a federal court upheld the dismissal on grounds that the employee "had no reasonable expectation of privacy."

Meanwhile, your computer online service produces data that in turn comes back to you in great batches of junk mail and advertising targeted to you, your interests and your income. No, it's not a coincidence.

There is much that individual Internet users can do to protect themselves. Electronic mail can be sent anonymously through various "remailer" services. Also, Web users should divulge as little personal information as possible. Remember, companies have been formed for the precise purpose of collecting that information and selling it.

On the level of the database giants and those with access to their information, the threat of computer abuse raises serious questions about whether federal protections regarding electronic privacy are adequate, particularly given the rapid expansion of emerging technologies and increasingly easy access. As the hue and cry against Lexis-Nexis suggests, Americans are quick to respond when they feel their privacy is under attack, and legislative bodies will be certain to follow suit.

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