InDepthNH.org is grateful for Bob Charest who shows us why we should care about privacy matters. Thanks Bob for all you do for InDepthNH.org — Nancy West
By Bob Charest
Why Should You Care NH
I had to call my neighbor recently, and I didn’t have her telephone number written down.
I used one of those online telephone directories, switchboard.com, (There are a few: 411.com, whitepages.com, anywho.com are some of them) and when I typed in her name and hometown, I wasn’t offered her telephone number, but more precisely, I was given the choice of clicking on a link and buying a copy of her assorted records, including a criminal background check. Now, first off, this made me wonder: Does my neighbor even have a criminal record?
And secondly, why is it so hard to get somebody’s telephone number nowadays?
As I watched the little status bars inch across my computer screen, I was presented with a message that assured me that what I was doing was 100 percent private and my neighbor would never be notified of this search.
Then I hit the jackpot. I was notified that they had found information in one or more of the following categories: Addresses, Phone Numbers, Location History, Family Members, Drug Charges, Court Records, Date of Birth, Concealed Weapon, Sex Offender Check, Misdemeanors, Assault Records and Criminal Check.
I watched as the computer was compiling my report, and about five minutes later, I was able to view the Full Report, which after typing in my own name and email address, took me to another screen which offered me the ability to become a ”Power User,” assuring me this was my best value, at $29.95 per month. But if I preferred, I could obtain one background report a month, as a “Casual User,” for $19.95 per month.
And all I wanted was her phone number, which I never did get.
Instead, I walked over to my neighbor’s house and asked my question of her in person. I suppose there’s something to be said about the site’s ability to get me out and exercising. (I hope I wasn’t too obvious as I looked around her house, trying to determine if I was living next door to an ax murderer.)
How did I come to be living at a time when a simple request for a phone number turns out to be a revealing expose of someone’s life?
The answer is more or less because I happen to be living at a time when the cost of data storage has become so cheap and the ease of data retrieval has become so commonplace that tons and tons of information can be kept on all of us, to be saved and dissected, and yes, sold, to those who will pay for it.
And that is the rub in the current climate on Internet searches and the far-reaching abilities of big data. Commercial enterprises have far fewer restrictions on what they can do as, say, the government, which usually has some policy which prevents them from using our information in ways that can be abused, or so I’d like to think. Many of the businesses I deal with, from credit card companies and insurers to retail operations, do have privacy policies that spell out how they use your information. These policies, filled with pages and pages of what look like three-point type, are sent to me once a year, but do I read them? Of course not.
Every time I do a Google search, I never think about what I am “paying” for the privilege. But, you say, a Google search is free, you boob!
Au contraire, my friend. You are giving up something every time you hit that search button. Giving up what, you ask? You are telling the marketers a little bit more about yourself each and every time you search for something. Haven’t you ever completed a search, only to find that wherever you went on the Internet after that, you were followed by that item everywhere? I recently did a search for a sink, and I didn’t stop seeing sinks for a few days after that. What’s more frightening is the thought that this information is being compiled in a data bank somewhere so that some intrepid marketer or worse, a computer algorithm, can compile a profile of me eventually.
Being in the news business, I have always been interested in “exploring” sources of information out there available to the public for free. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I must now inform you that there’s a lot out there on all of us already.
First, a story. Years ago, many news operations had access to a nifty little card catalog provided by the state of New Hampshire. On it were written the license plate numbers of all the vehicles in the state, along with the names of the owner and address. That catalog became obsolete many years ago when New Hampshire passed the driver privacy act, which decreed that DMV records are confidential and only certain people and entities have access to them, and only for purposes permitted by law.
But before the catalog became a quaint relic, we news types would access it when we had a breaking news story, say a murder or a crash, with a reporter relaying the registration information of cars seen parked at the scene, and someone in the office could look up to see who owned the vehicles. It made tracking down the central figures in a news story that much easier.
It is not much different from what we can do today with assessor’s databases. If we have an address of a breaking news event, say a fire, an explosion or a hostage situation, for instance, we in the news profession (actually anyone can do this) can look up the address on a website and find out all kinds of details about the location: How much the house is assessed for, who the neighbors are, in some cases even a floor plan of what the house looks like inside along with a photograph. If you are especially adept at these searches, you can also easily find out where the present occupants lived before, if they have a mortgage on the place, and even if they owe back taxes. It’s all public information.
In fact, let me suggest something to you. Go to the Registry of Deeds website (nhdeeds.com) and search on the county where you live. Get to the screen that allows you to search on either grantor or grantee records and type in your name. You will most likely see records going back years and years on real estate deals, tax liens and other assorted records kept by the Registry on you. Now, and this is very important, open some of these records and look through them. (I did a spot check and eight of the 10 counties allow this check for free. Grafton and Merrimack counties charge a fee.)
I did this not so long ago, and lo and behold, there on one of the documents was my Social Security number and my wife’s Social Security number!
There is a form you can file which requests that the Register of Deeds remove or redact that information online. I strongly suggest that people do that. (The sites also indicate that you can ask that credit card numbers as well as deposit account numbers be redacted as well, but please be aware, this redacts the info ONLINE only. Anything still on file at the Registry office will not be redacted.)
It’s more than a hop, skip and a jump from the days when people would go to the street registers, like the Polk directories available at any library, to find out who lived at a specific address. In many cases, especially if a person rented and moved around a lot, it was near impossible to track somebody down.
These sources of information, then and now, I am quite sure were not created for the purpose of providing reporters with background details. In this age of instantaneous information and the constant barrage of breaking news, we can do real damage if we say too much at some times during an active situation. And many journalists get that.
But what right do any of us have to know secretive details about our neighbors: How much they paid for their house, what they pay in taxes, where they went to school? Some would argue we have no right, that what our neighbors do is their business.
But is it?
You might see from time to time a list of driver’s license suspensions for DWI infractions, and right there, listed by town, are your friends and neighbors who have had their licenses taken away. It’s the kind of information that allows people to know if certain people should be driving, if old so-and-so should be behind the wheel. (The unfortunate aspect to these lists is that they sometimes overlap the actual time when someone is legal again.)
There are all manner of public disclosures that we may or may not want revealed about ourselves: arrests, indictments, divorces, court appearances, etc. But we have been reporting them for years. That’s just a few of the major ones. How about the sex offender registry, available on the state police website? You can look up to see if your neighbor has a duty to report for something that might keep you up at night.
And that brings up an important point: How much should you know about your neighbors? After all, if you live next door to them, you probably want to know that they are honest and law abiding, just like you are. You don’t want your kids hanging around with someone who might take them for a ride on a suspended license or who might be driving drunk. You certainly don’t want them sleeping over at a sex offender’s house.
Now that it’s personal, it’s not so academic, is it?
Bob Charest has served as a consultant to InDepthNH.org for the past year, assisting founder Nancy West with editing and writing foundation materials. In his next column, he’ll explore more ways information is being kept on us all, including some ways that might be helpful to the average person.