I read an interesting article by Brian Krebs over at the Washington Post on ID theft. Brian did a little hunting on some underground IRC channels and witnessed a large amount of stolen personal data being exchanged, then went out and talked with around two dozen victims.

One of his more interesting tidbits was that a bunch of the credit card numbers were being used to purchase background checks from Internet sites like USSearch.com. These sites purport themselves as “people finders” for such seemingly innocent needs as collections, finding that old college friend, making sure your nanny doesn’t have a criminal record, or tracking down all the places where your ex-wife might be hiding.

Yeah, not everyone uses these things to find former roommates who stiffed you $50 in long distance.

I decided to pony up and run a check on myself to see how bad these are. My conclusion? We need regulation. Badly. It’s yet another case where seemingly innocent pieces of public information have tremendous consequences when aggregated and correlated on the scale of the Information Age.

I set just one basic rule- what could I find on one site using nothing more than my name. Some sites let you search on SSN, but since that’s supposedly secret (probably not hard to find) I restricted myself to name only.

I ended up at PublicBackgroundChecks.com since it was slightly cheaper. All the services range from about $9.99 for a simple address lookup, to $60 for a background check including criminal records. I decided on the $40 ‘background check without criminal records check’ since I’ve had my record cleared enough to know I’m clean. It wasn’t worth the $20 to me just to see if my speeding tickets were on there.

It wasn’t all accurate, but it’s close enough to get my attention. Here are some highlights:

  1. Probably 85% of the addresses I’ve ever lived at. It missed 3 from my first two years of college, but caught everything else.
  2. Age and DOB
  3. Parent’s names and addresses. My sister wasn’t listed as a relative for some reason.
  4. Possible associates with their address history- based on concurrent address information. It caught my stepfather (deceased), 3 long-time roommates, and the entire family of one of my landlords.
  5. Schools, mail drops, banks, and storage lockers near known addresses.
  6. Property ownership and appraised value for my last two residences. I’m only on the mortgage for one of them, and there was another listing of the previous owner on that one, with no date range.
  7. Historical phone numbers for current, last previous, childhood, and one random residence. I think the system struggles with date ranges and it didn’t find any of my real phone numbers except…
  8. Internet domain registrations- including registrar info which included an old address. It nailed some old domains, but didn’t include Securosis.
  9. Owners, about a dozen neighbors (with phone/address), and other residents (with phone numbers) for those addresses it provided details on. I still don’t know why it didn’t do this for every address.
  10. A bunch of other (accurate) empty searches:

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Overall it was fairly accurate, and probably 70% complete. It only identified two of my phone numbers, neither current, one about 17 years old. It’s more than enough information to track me down, and everything you’d need to start some identity fraud other than my SSN.

In times of old all this information was available, but scattered across the written files or proprietary databases of potentially hundreds of agencies and sources. Neighbors, associates, historical phone numbers, local banks and storage facilities weren’t the most available pieces of information without some legwork.

And then I think of all the other sources out there on me that I didn’t check- everything from Google, to credit checks (easy to obtain illegally), to the large data aggregators like ChoicePoint. One of these vendors once showed me their law enforcement tool for tracking individuals- imagine all the information I listed above, of higher accuracy, visually accessed in a real-time three dimensional browser. Within seconds you could track the personal relationships, based on public records, of anyone in the US with just a name and date of birth (also easy to find). Some data aggregators can correlate across financial, public, and criminal records.

Scott McNealy once infamously stated, “You have zero privacy anyway, get over it”. He’s half right. Nearly every shred of our privacy is gone to anyone with a web browser and less than $100, but that doesn’t mean we should accept it. Aside from the social implications the fraud implications alone demand some sort of action. While these records are public, and on their own fairly innocuous, once aggregated and correlated the value increases exponentially.

Don’t believe me- go pay your $40 and see for yourself.

Next step in my research- start tracking these companies down and see how many are just public fronts for a few of the big names. I don’t know the answer, but have my suspicions.