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Several initiatives are in the works at both national and international levels of government to address consumer privacy rights. Public records, once the domain of country courthouses, can now be made available to anyone over the internet for a price, via an online data broker. Unfortunately, selling this information is not currently illegal. Obtainable information includes; current addresses, phone numbers, aliases, property ownership, bankruptcies, tax liens, civil judgments, relatives or roommates names, and even a criminal background check (www.usa-people-search.com).
Once such company, called CellularTrace, can provide a cellular phone trace for a fee. This company can provide a reverse look-up on a cell phone number, information on a changed or disconnected cell number, or to locate the cell phone number itself (www.cellulartrace.com). Many people believe this is unethical, because stalkers, gangsters, and others can use the date maliciously (Belsen, 2006). Furthermore, CellularTrace provides a Disclaimer (www.cellulartrace.com/disclaimer.htm), which must be agreed to by all who places orders, that states that the person requesting the information is, and/or will use the information for:
Law enforcement, fraud or insurance investigation, journalistic endeavors, investigations of missing persons, locating heirs or beneficiaries, collection of monies owed, the location or repossession of mortgaged collateral, licensed private investigation, legal investigations, legal research…service of process, witness location, fugitive apprehension, fraud prevention, genealogical research, loss prevention, product recalls, location of former patients (medical industry only), locating customers, previous customers or fraud victim.
This implies that the information should be used for the conduct of business in a non-personal way, or for informational purposes only. However, on the CellularTrace website there are pictures of people who appear to be “cheating” on their spouses or significant others, with the following captions: “Suspicions of infidelity are often confirmed by cell phone research”, and “Many cheaters try to hide their unfaithful communications by using their cell phones”, and finally, “If you suspect your husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend is cheating, and need cellular research to confirm or eliminate your suspicions, we can help by providing number traces, call records, and more!” (www.cellulartrace.com/about_us.htm). Not only is this incendiary advertisement, but it is actually prohibited by their own disclaimer!
Legislators have vowed to shut down these sites. The Gramm-Leach-Bailey Act, passed by Congress in 1999, prohibits people from deceiving companies to obtain financial records, but as yet does not cover phone records (Belson, 2006). So, although alarm bells are going off, and people feel it is unethical to sell personal information, it is as yet not illegal.
Interestingly, however, CellularTrace also requires, as part of the Disclaimer, that the requestor may not attempt to obtain records of their own search request, or any other records from CellularTrace.com, its owners, members, employees, etc. by force, fraud, coercion or any other means including a subpoena (italics added)…” (www.cellulartrace.com/disclaimer.htm) This can only be because CellularTrace is afraid of future litigation, or a future change in the law which would make what they do illegal, and/or wish to protect themselves and their files retroactively. This is not the Disclaimer of a company who wants honesty to be their guiding principle. This is the Disclaimer of a company that knows that the personal information they provide may be used for other than ethical or even legal purposes, and wants to cover themselves in case of any unfortunate consequences stemming from the provision of this information.
In this technological age, when all personal information is for sale, the question becomes how much personal information, and which kinds, should be made public, and thus for sale, on the internet. Consumers certainly don’t want their personal information out in cyberspace, and many have no idea it is out there for sale. Unfortunately, the reason it is out there is because, “The information typically originates from records gathered and stored by public agencies, available for anyone to see n courthouses and government buildings around the country” (Krim, 2005). Unfortunately, in their rush to get records online – including marriage and divorce records, property deeds, etc containing social security numbers and other sensitive information, including signatures – little thought was given to the consequences of making this available online (Ibid). So, online companies such as CellularTrace only need to collect the data, analyze it, and sell it to anyone willing to abide by their Disclaimer. Even it this activity was made illegal today, there are already billions of personal records on the web. Even Jeb Bush (governor of Florida) had his social security number published on his county website, and hence, on the web. Betty Ostergren, an activist against making public records available online, pointed this out to him, and he had it blacked out. So, she promptly listed it on her own website. Her point is that public information should stay public, but not made available online (Krim, 2005).
Ultimately, CellularTrace may be providing a legal service, but ethically it is in a very gray area. The fact that they cover themselves with a thorough Disclaimer is good for them, but not good for the consumer. Until government and adequate laws protecting consumer privacy rights catch up with technology however, it is every person for himself to try to keep as much personal information off the internet as possible.
References
Belson, K. (2006). Lipstick on your Caller. The New York Times Company, Feb. 5, 2006.
Retrieved online February 7, 2006 from:
www.nytimes.com/2006/02/05/weekinreview/05bels.html?_r=1&oref+slogin
CellularTrace (2003-2006). Retrieved online February 7, 2006 from:
www.cellulartrace.com/disclaimer.htm
CellularTrace (2003-2006). Retrieved online February 7, 2006 from:
www.cellulartrace.com/about_us.htm
Krim, J. (2005). A Matter of Public Record. The Washington Post Company, 2005. Retrieved on
February 7, 2006 from: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-
dyn/content/article/2005/05/24/AR2005052401347_pf.html
USA People Search (2006). Retrieved online February 7, 2006 from: www.usa-people-
search.com/help.aspx