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CyberAssassination: Personal Data

on Opponent's Website
May-02-07

Internet Bloggers maliciously publicizing personal identity information including the victim's Social Security number is emerging as a major identity theft problem, and the information is often culled from online Public Records.

From her Durham, N.C. home Lauranell "Nell" Burch publishes a website where she and others offer complaints about Lasik, the popular laser eye surgery. Recently Burch's website began showing the personal and financial information of Glenn Hagele, director of the Council for Refractive Surgery Quality Assurance (USAEyes.org).

Hagele isn't the first to fall victim to having his online "public" data misused. Last year, political opponents of Marylandís Lt. Governor Michael S. Steele pled guilty to using Steele's Social Security number to access his credit history in an attempt to discourage Steel from running for a U.S. Senate seat. The researchers found the Lt. Governor's Social Security number on government websites.

Also last year, The Chicago Tribune reported on how they easily identified and tracked over 2600 CIA employees using the services of an unnamed Internet data miner.

"This is a CyberAssassination; an Internet hit job," complains Glenn Hagele, who founded the nonprofit USAEyes.org in 1997.

"I've had my Social Security number, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and even samples of my signature publicized."

Burch attained Hagele's identity from Public Records and court
documents that had not redacted his private information. For decades the practical obscurity of documents buried in government archives kept abuse to a minimum. Public documents including lawsuits, divorce, bankruptcy, child support, and even traffic violations may contain sensitive information.

The easy availability of Public Records over the Internet has renewed the controversy between the public's right to know and an individual's right to privacy.

The line is further blurred by the subtle difference between just obtaining a public document and publicizing it to millions over the Internet, exposing the victim to identity theft for the rest of his life.

Even state governors are powerless against this type of attack. After former Florida Governor Jeb Bush discovered his Social Security number was displayed online, the sensitive number was promptly redacted from the county website three years ago. Today Bush's number is displayed on foreign websites all over the world.

"What's bizarre is that we had nothing to do with Ms. Burch or her
Lasik," says Hagele. "She did not seek our advice and did not use a Lasik doctor affiliated with our organization." Hagele's concern extends beyond his own financial identity.

"Any advocate, anyone who voices an opinion, any blogger, any identifiable group can become the target of this kind of CyberAssassination. I deal with laser eye surgery and I've been targeted. How safe is someone who raises a major controversy?"

Internet publication of personal identity data has become so
problematic that Google, the world's most popular Internet search engine according to a 2006 Advertising Age analysis, has dedicated a web page forvictims to report incidents. A Software & Information Industry Association analysis identified service institutions, especially Internet-based service institutions such as USAEyes.org, as especially at risk.

Hagele contacted authorities seeking help in blocking access to his
identity information only to find them unable or hesitant to act.

"Legislation has not caught up with the Internet," says Hagele, "A patchwork of local, state, and national laws are often unclear.

Identity theft has topped the list of consumer complaints to the US
Federal Trade Commission for the last seven consecutive years, constituting 36% of all FTC complaints in 2006.

Hagele labeling  publication of  private information online as CyberAssasination may not be far off the mark. Amy Boyer was murdered after her stalker identified her private information in the "public" records online.

Hagele is meeting with lawmakers, urging them to clarify and strengthen privacy law.

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