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I, Spy
Jeff Pasternack

Continuing on my quest to point out how the Internet and technology are making the tracking of our lives ubiquitous, I decided to do an experiment. My captor...uh...loving wife had been looking for a childhood friend for ten years and had recently discovered some information about her. This information was presented to me with a clear mission: find this person or face wrath never before seen in our household.

By way of a preface, the usual checks on Google, Classmates and Switchboard failed to produce any information about this person, however, a few of the people-finder sites were happy to take $40 and produce the information. I could have shelled out the clams and been done with it, but that's just not my style.

As always, whenever I need to find someone, I always start my search in my backyard in case they're buried there or something. Not that this has ever happened before, mind you, but it's always good to check. It also gives me an excuse to go taunt the alligator that lurks in the reeds behind my new home in Florida. At three feet, he's a cutie and we named him Louie. Anyway, not finding the body in the backyard, I settled down to begin my hunt.

Its not that I don't trust the old battle - I mean, my wife, but I decided I'd retrace her steps on Google and tried some name variants with no luck. And so I went off to the second-best place to search for someone, which is SearchSystems, to search gain access to 20,000 searchable public records databases at the global, US federal, state and local levels. Many of them are free to use.

Here's the information inventory with which I began: first and last name (target had a common name), married name (also common name), state of birth, approximate age and that she was married in Florida at an unknown time. That's it. One of the people-finder sites indicated that my target was in two south Florida counties, so I went to that section of the site and started in the Palm Beach and Broward county databases. Within ten minutes I had found the following information: Marriage license, divorce filing, divorce settlement (and the name of her dog), several property liens, releases from liens, two mortgages and quit claim deeds. I even had an aerial shot of her house, courtesy of Microsoft's TerraServer.

I also found out some things about this person by what I didn't find: she wasn't in the prisoner database, she hadn't filed for any occupational licenses, had no children, wasn't listed as a business owner, etc. Granted, all of this is public information and so the lawyers among you would scoff at my results, especially since I had started with much more information than I normally have when I'm asked to hunt someone down.

Having presented my wife with the current phone number, which was all that she asked for, I wondered about how this person would feel knowing that her life was on display like this. As presenting this person with this information would be a dubious beginning to the renewed relationship, I decided that I would do another experiment to see how people felt about their data being so accessible. So I selected some random targets. Heh heh heh.

I picked a bank teller, a checkout lady from the grocery store, a ticket agent from an airline, a TSA luggage and body invader, a cabbie, a hotel clerk, a ticket-taker at an arena, a cop, a waitress and a guy who was named in a PC World article as having had a computer problem. The only information I had on these folks were their names, an age guesstimate and the cities in which they worked. Using SearchSystems as my starting place, I spent about 30 hours over the course of two weeks looking into these people's lives and assembling packages of data. Yes, I live for this column.

In the beginning, my own thoughts as to what I was finding were along the lines of "Wow, check that out." As I went through each life, I began to sour on the whole thing. At times I felt like a peeping Tom and other times I was just saddened at what I saw. I suppose I found what one would expect to find if you sifted through the lives of any ten people: marriages, divorces, criminal histories, bankruptcies, you name it. It's the stuff of life and, within it, marketing data.

After I assembled the packages, on a lark I had a programmer friend write a script to mine all divorce records from a specific county and that were filed within a certain timeframe. I divided the results into men and women and wrote a letter offering a new dating service catering to the recently divorced. Then we mined the marriage licenses and I drafted a letter on the perfect vacation spot to spend that first anniversary. Can you think of a better way to use public records data? Frankly, the only thing I could think of was how to wash the filthy feeling out of my brain.

The packages sat on the counter, glaring up at me and daring me to mail them off. The plan was simple: send the packages and tell the recipients that I found their data online and that they are part of an experiment which is designed to learn their feelings about what I found. I told them that they needed to wake up, fight to protect their data, etc. I asked for responses to be sent to a Yahoo email account that I created while online at a local library: after all, there's no need for them to be able to direct their rage at me. Too much irony, that.

But you know, the day passed and the packages sat. I just couldn't do it. I couldn't see breaking the soporific spell that people are under when it comes to their illusions of privacy. I mean, these were just ten working stiffs: what effect could they have? Who would care or listen? So I decided to shred the packages and reformulate the experiment. This time I targeted ten trial attorneys. Can't you just hear them screaming?

Jeff Pasternack is the president of Dynamic Consulting Group, a franchise partner of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? and author of the TechnoPeasant Review.
If you have questions or comments about this column, please write to him at