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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Your Personal Data: Available for a Price

In the olden days, maybe 35 years ago, you could screw up and, if need be, head over to a new town and start over.  No one cared too much about your past, your financial status, that sort of thing.  If you showed up for work, did your job, you were usually good to go.

Today there are dozens or perhaps hundreds of companies whose job is to collect every scrap of information about you both public and private.  So you can kiss "starting over" good bye.  So in addition to any internet activity you might engage in there's a good chance your ALL of public and private information is also available online.

Many years ago I owned a company that did work related to the "public information collecting" business.  We didn't actually collect the information but we built software, systems, and procedures to automate the legal newspapers.

Prior to the explosion of the internet legal newspapers were about the only equivalent system for tracking down public information.  In the county where I lived at the time we did this information about mortgages, deeds, court cases, hearings, and so forth were still written into large ledgers by hand (this was around 1992 or so).

We created a system where "the little old ladies" took laptops to the basements of various city and county office buildings.  The laptops had special data entry forms for each of the various books.  When they brought the laptops back to the main office of the legal newspaper they dumped the data into a formatting system that generated galleys for the legal newspaper.

In addition we kept the data in a database that users could search interactively.

Today I am certain that much of the data the companies below sell is collected electronically.  I imagine that there are still some cities and towns where things are done the old way, or at least on paper, still.  So the days of "the little old ladies" collecting data are not entirely lost.  This new data, though, at least from my simple experiments, its seems to be mostly of questionable value.

Some of the companies I did a bit of research on:

Intelius: This company offers an array of background checks, social network checks, reverse phone lookup, tenant and employee screening, and, from their web site "online access to public records such as real estate deeds, lawsuit filings, liens, professional licensing records, and other information filed by individuals and businesses with local, state and federal agencies. ".  They collect public information and though you can request to have your information deleted they will simply replace it with similar public information.

This company owns a ZabaSearch which is a free personal search.

I decided to check out ZabaSearch as its "free". 

I put my name into it.  It coughed up about 110 "free" hits - about 90% were either entirely wrong, partially wrong (wrong address, wrong phone number), or useless links to other people with some of the same initials.  Since I am only one of the people found it would probably be very hard to "correct" this information.

Next I tried my cell phone number.  It correctly found the general area in which I live but that's about it.

Next I tried to see what it would do - it was also "free".

This site seemed to do a much better job.  It found the town I live in, it found some relatives, and some other incorrect information about where I did not live and some aliases which I never used.  There was far less "noise" than Intelius.

LexisNexis offers a service called  I tried this as well but its a pay sight and does not display anything useful unless I pay real money.

If I was willing to pay for these services I might have gotten more or better information.

Lastly there is the venerable Google search for me.  This turns up a lot - but mostly related to businesses, trade shows, and things like that.  On the image side it mostly turns up wrong data - again you can see that Google's idea of what data is is at best "quaint".  (For example, I did a parody article on my personal blog using pictures of other people when I wrote about marrying Sarah Palin and now Google thinks they are pictures of me...)  Its unlikely that any self respecting county would put its data on line for people to search for free if there was someone out there willing to pay.

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