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Is There Such a Thing as Privacy Anymore?

by Jim Marasco  |  Partner

As a fraud investigator for the past twenty years, I’ve taken advantage of a vast amount of information available through public sources. In most cases, individuals can’t control what personal information is out there. However, it’s becoming routine for people to voluntarily share more of their personal information online. Recent developments have convinced me that we’ve crossed a threshold. Have we permanently given up our privacy and anonymity?

The advent of the Internet and the treasure trove of available information

In the not so recent past, investigator’s research involved a trip to the library or newspaper archives. The introduction of the Internet changed everything. Not only is information freely available, but sites/services are popping up providing more detailed information for those searching. In some cases, you have to pay or subscribe; in others, it’s free for the asking.

The government and various municipalities have joined the fray. For those seeking information available from a county clerk’s office, most of them have it online. While you’re on the site, query your neighbor. You can easily find out if they have a mortgage, the lender and for how much. Curious about their marriage? You can find out which spouse filed for divorce, when, what attorneys represent them and the current status of the case. You can check if they are current with their property taxes, how much they pay and whether any late fees have been charged. Without leaving the site, you can also find out if they have been sued by any other party or have any liens or judgments lodged against them.

At the state level, it’s easy to find out who’s incarcerated and where, whether the state is holding onto escheated funds for you or anyone else and whether your CPA, stockbroker, doctor, nurse, barber, etc. has any infractions or complaints lodged against them or the status of their professional license. Worried your neighbor is a sex offender? There are state and national registries that identify them with pictures, descriptions of the offenses and the current location of where they live.

If you seek access to PACER, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records database, any federal filed bankruptcy, civil or criminal matter will be available. Depending on your level of access, you will have the ability to see the details of any cases including all documents that have been filed.

Private Managed Sources

If the public managed sites aren’t enough to scare someone, private companies have created a whole industry around publishing information as well. For example, on Zillow, you can find out your neighbors assessed home value, the last time it was sold and the selling price. You can usually grab pictures of the inside if it was recently listed for sale. Worse case, you’ll get pictures from the road or aerial through the site or Google Earth. Curious about that phone number that keeps calling you? Try to do a reverse lookup. If it’s a cellphone, you may need to try another service and have to pay for that information, but it’s available.

For those that specialize in more detailed investigations, it’s not uncommon to utilize a pay site such as Lexis Nexis which pulls from various public sources and databases and charges based on the requested search. A simple query of an individual will produce an astounding amount of information. Some examples of what’s included in a standard report are:
All real estate transactions involving the parties involved, associated addresses with full detail on price, date transacted and mortgage amount.
Every vehicle, water or aircraft registered to you in the recent past. It may also include whether you have a loan against the title and the amount paid.

  • All professional licenses held.
  • Gun permits.
  • Driver’s licenses including accident reports for certain states.
  • Business associations or dba’s registered in your name.
  • Political affiliation.
  • Bankruptcy, lien and judgment information.
  • All associated telephone numbers and email addresses.
  • All close relatives and neighbors, along with their contact information.
  • Criminal history for some states.

Facebook and GEDmatch

Most of the information described above is being posted to the web by sources beyond our control. With the recent events that have become widely publicized, it’s becoming evident that people are voluntarily making this situation even worse.

Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg found themselves in the crosshairs of Washington legislators in April 2018 when it was revealed they were selling personal data to Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm. It’s been reported that nearly 90 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested and sold to Cambridge, who subsequently filed bankruptcy as a result of the negative press they received. It appears Cambridge promised the Trump campaign that they would use this information to develop detailed psychological profiles of every American voter, so that campaigns could tailor their pitches from person to person. They referred to it as using Big Data. This sounds incredibly familiar to how retailers are currently marketing to consumers or businesses are marketing to other businesses.
What’s ironic is that no one forced the 90 million consumers to post all of their personal information about their daily lives on Facebook or other social media sites. Facebook wouldn’t have anything to sell or harvest if it wasn’t volunteered by willing consumers in the first place. Were people as upset as our politicians and state attorney generals? It doesn’t appear so. in the aftermath, Facebook didn’t experience a mass exodus of users.

The other major news that hit right after was the capture of the infamous Golden State Killer. This vicious criminal had gone undiscovered for over 40 years. How he was found was even more astonishing. Investigators tracked him down using DNA obtained from the original crime scenes and matched it against familial DNA found in the website GEDmatch. He had eluded the authorities by staying incognito for years, but was unknowingly outed by relatives he may have never met. Other DNA sites have scrambled to announce that they won’t sell your information to insurance companies, prospective employers, etc. The fact is law enforcement can probably gain access to this information by demonstrating just cause. Whether you refrain from personally publishing your vacation photos or post your DNA for the world to see, it may not be enough. Like the Golden State Killer, you can’t control the actions of a friend or relative who may compromise your privacy without you ever knowing it.

Irreversible Damage

It’s been reported that the average American is captured on video approximately 75 times a day. Your cell phone provider has access to all of your text messages, various apps track your whereabouts during the course of the day, the music you listen to, the people you call, the news you read, the shows you watch, your relationship status, your dating preferences and the pictures you upload. Twenty years ago we worried that our postal delivery person knew too much about us from the mail they were delivering to our mailboxes. Those were the days!. Now your Siri, Google Home, Amazon Alexa or even your appliances are listening in on all your conversations. Worse yet, we are helping the cause by voluntarily posting even more information about ourselves and others for the world to see including our own DNA. Have we passed the point of no return?

For more information about StoneBridge Business Partners and the services we can provide, please contact us today!

About Jim Marasco:   Jim is a Partner at EFPR Group, LLP and one of the Founding Members of StoneBridge Business Partners, an affiliated consulting firm.  He is a member of the firm’s Business Valuation, Litigation Support & Forensic Services Group and other nontraditional accounting services.  Jim has been with EFPR Group for over 20 years and is a full-time management consultant traveling extensively throughout the country. He has helped safeguard some of the largest Fortune 1000 companies from fraud and abuse and has assisted in the identification and recovery of millions of dollars back to the affected parties. His experience is mainly concentrated in the healthcare distribution and franchise fields, where he has worked with over fifty of the top franchisors in the U.S.  In addition, he has worked closely with the Catholic Church in the U.S. for the past five years assisting in their compliance efforts to ensure the safety of children within the church.  Jim is also a court-recognized expert, lecturer and author on varying subjects of fraud and forensic auditing. 

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