The Internet has built up a rat's nest of personal information about each of us, as information once available only on costly commercial databases has become widely accessible to anyone with a computer and modem. With nothing but your e-mail address, complete strangers can get everything from a map to your house to a list of many of your assets.
So maybe it's about time you find out what kind of "cyber profile" would emerge if, say, a prospective employer did an electronic background check on you. Or maybe you want to learn a little more about that special someone who seems so secretive about his or her past.
The obvious place to start is at a search engine. Go to http://www.altavista.digital.com. Type in your name, or the name of your subject, with quotation marks on each side, e.g., "Leslie Helm." (Without the quotation marks, the search will pick up unrelated references to "Leslie" and "Helm.")
If an unsavory character in cyberspace has the same name as you, you should know that. A prospective employer could get the wrong impression.
Now take a look at the Usenet, the forum for thousands of discussion groups. At http://www.dejanews.com, you can type in your name and get a list of all contributions you have made to Usenet groups since 1995. You can search by name, but the search will be more complete if you use an e-mail address.
The site will even offer you an index of the postings you made to each Usenet group. You can read each posting. Now do a check on a prospective partner. Is that charmer you just met a closet neo-Nazi or a pedophile?
How easy is it for someone to track you down? Go to a directory site such as http://www.infospace.com or http://www.anywho.com. The sites include reverse directories, where you can look up a name and address if all you have is an e-mail address, or the other way around. The services also enable users to print a map showing the location of your home.
If you want a sense of someone's wealth, you can go to http://realestate.yahoo.com/realestate/homevalues/address.html. The site will tell you the sales price of just about any home in the country with just a street address and ZIP Code. You can also find out how much everybody else on the street paid for their homes. (This site still has some bugs and is neither comprehensive nor completely accurate.)
To delve deeper, you have to spend a little money. Go to one of several sites that offer credit reports (http://www.equifax.com, http://www.experian.com and http://www.tuc.com). If you've been recently denied credit, you can get a free report. Otherwise, pay $8 to get a personal credit report mailed to you. Review it to make sure there are no errors. The report will also give you a list of institutions that have recently accessed your credit report.
Credit information is legally available only to those with a legitimate right to such information, such as landlords and employers. In reality, says David Banisar, policy director at the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, "any used-car salesman can pull up your credit report."
If you want a little more in-depth information, try one of the dozens of online investigative services that have cropped up.
One of the better deals is offered at http://www.1800ussearch.com. For $50, the company offers to "find out what others can find out about you." The report includes your address, phone numbers and a list of your assets, including property, automobiles, boats and planes. It also includes your driver's license information, lawsuits in which you've been ensnared and your corporate affiliations, as well as the names and phone listings of your neighbors.
You can conduct a similar background check on someone else for a special rate of $39.95 ($79.95 normally) at the same site.
This little exercise will give you some sense of what's available about you online. But be warned, there's lots more that can be pulled out with a little extra money.
David Raine, chief executive of San Diego-based Infospi.com, an online investigator, says his company compiles information from dozens of databases, including everything from Motorola's list of employees, which includes each employee's birth date, to marketing databases that offer all the personal details you provide when you enter contests at the shopping mall.
The stock transactions of officers and directors of companies and personal bankruptcy records can be searched in publicly available databases. But Raine says his investigators also have a list of contacts with access to such supposedly private information as what stocks and bonds you own, information that's frequently useful in divorce proceedings.
If all this alarms you, sign up for the biweekly newsletter of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center (http://www.epic.org). The free publication will keep you up-to-date on the latest threats to privacy and what is being done about it.
Leslie Helm can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.