Tales of identity theft and computer hacking used to be the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters, but in our increasingly techno world they are commonplace. It was only the other month that Bristol pensioner Derek Bond was held at a Durban police station for over two weeks by the FBI after a major fraudster stole his identity.
Carole Lane's research guide Naked in Cyberspace has its roots in our increasing fear of the proliferation of online personal data. She explains:
"We all leave paper trails. Today paper trails have given way to 'vapour trails'; far more of our records exist in the memories of computers than in paper files, much less the fallible memories of human beings."
Naked in Cyberspace claims that it will teach you how to use online tools and databases to locate and investigate people, access public records, search for assets, uncover criminal records, conduct genealogical research and much more. At first glance it seems like a book that we won't be able to live without on our move into the cyberage. I was keen to start investigations.
The guide is divided into four main sections. The first is a general introduction to personal records in cyberspace and is recommended as a must-read before moving onto the other more specific sections of the guide. This section is definitely useful for those unfamiliar with the Internet and databases and does arm readers with some general points about future research. For example it explains that searching databases is relatively easy however knowing which ones to search isn't; and gives the good advice that you shouldn't believe everything you find in a database. It covers different types of database vendors including paid databases. Lane also gives an introduction to search engines and their use. She follows this with three sample investigations: a search to track down a person, a search for assets, and a background profile search using Bill Gates as an example.
The first section also gives an introduction to the Naked in Cyberspace Web site  which has links to all the online resources. Note that Naked in Cyberspace is an American text and so a lot of the resources are more applicable to those based in the US. However most of the discussions and processes explained are internationally relevant and Lane often mentions resources available for those based in other countries.
The final chapter in the first section discusses the emotional issue of privacy. Although privacy laws in the US differ from those in the UK, the sentiments are still the same. Lane explains that the laws of privacy are fragile and gives us her first law of information: "If information exists in one place, it exists in more than one place". This applies directly to your credit details! Although information held by banks and credit agencies is secure and regulated for legal reasons, details of your purchases and card numbers can be found all over the Internet and the real world; you only have to take a look in the average high street litter bin. Lane also covers the reduced security of information due to client-server architecture replacing corporate mainframe computers. This availability of information has led to the emergence of three types of cybercriminal: the sport hacker, who hacks for the intellectual thrill, the destructive hacker, who hacks to destroy, and the data thief, whose aim is to get specific information to use for criminal purposes. At the end of the chapter she offers a corollary to her first law of information: "If information exists anywhere, no matter how carefully guarded, it exists somewhere else, where virtually anyone can gain access to it."
The second section of the guide explains how personal records are used. Chapters cover areas such as pre-employment screening, prospect research (fundraising), competitive intelligence and private investigation. Not needing to carry out any complicated research tasks, I concentrated on the area that we all have an interest in: locating people. Most of us have a friend, relative or lost love that we'd like to track down. The approach taken in the guide involves documenting all that is known about the person we are trying to locate and then taking that information to a selection of Web sites. Lane points out problems you may stumble upon: for example names are rarely unique and may even have been changed; she provides us with ideas about how to search with this in mind. The methods Lane suggests are logical and thorough, unfortunately she is unable to provide the quick fix answer we are all looking for. Finding someone often requires time, a lot of effort and a fair amount of money. Saying that - finding myself was pretty easy: with a job in the information world and an unusual name, a search on Google provided hundreds of hits that lead right to me. It seems the odds are stacked against my ever carrying out any major fraud!
Section three of the guide deals with different types of personal records from biographies and general indices to telephone directories and criminal justice records. The chapter on consumer credit records was pretty interesting and did provide information on whom to contact in the UK if you wish to find out about your credit rating (Experian and Infocheck-equifax). But once again there was no easy answer and a lot of the searches require quite a lot of money. Later on in the section Lane points out the limitations of online public records. Although more information is appearing online everyday, it will take some time for all preceding records to be digitised. One area in which the book provided a lot of useful sources was for those trying to trace adoptive parents, siblings or children. There is a comprehensive list of adoption agencies and also details of adoption news groups. Another area becoming more popular with Internet users is genealogy. Lane provides links to genealogy software and information on genealogical record formats as well as census, birth, death and immigration records.
The final section of the guide provides pointers to further information. There is a list of useful books, periodicals and organisations and their URLs. The appendix offers details of more specific Web sites and databases such as telephone directories, adoption registries, business credit and company financial databases and companies and associations that can help to remove your name from mailing lists.
Naked in Cyberspace is a very relevant text for our times. It discusses many issues that are becoming more and more applicable to our lives and makes suggestions about how we can control what is done with our own personal information and use what is done with other people's. If you have a specific search that you need to carry out, then this is an excellent starting point because Naked in Cyberspace does a good job of considering all the relevant issues related to a specific search. It is also useful for information brokers, private investigators or researchers who make a business out of research.
However the guide does not give any easy answers. A lot of the information searching you may want to do such as credit reports, criminal records etc. will require you to sign up and pay for the use of databases and sites. For me, a person who is finding it hard to come to terms with the increase in personal data held about us, this was actually quite a relief. At least people who want to get their hands on this type of private information still have to give their details at some stage, though as Lane points out, data thieves don't bother logging in. Although Naked in Cyberspace is interesting and potentially very useful, it seems that if you want to track down your first boy/girlfriend then friendsreunited.com is still the place to look.
Article Title: "Naked in Cyberspace"
Author: Marieke Guy
Publication Date: 30-July-2003
Publication: Ariadne Issue 36
Originating URL: http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue36/guy-rvw/