||Miércoles 18 de Mayo de 2005, Ip nº 109
|Your Identity, Open to All
Por Xeni Jardin
A search for personal data on ZabaSearch.com -- one of the most comprehensive personal-data search engines on the net -- tends to elicit one of two reactions from first-timers: terror or curiosity. Which reaction often depends on whether you are searching for someone else's data, or your own.
ZabaSearch queries return a wealth of info sometimes dating back more than 10 years: residential addresses, phone numbers both listed and unlisted, birth year, even satellite photos of people's homes.
ZabaSearch isn't the first or only such service online. Yahoo's free People Search, for example, returns names, telephone numbers and addresses. But the information is nothing more than what's been available for years in the White Pages.
Far more personal information is available from data brokers, including aliases, bankruptcy records and tax liens. That access typically requires a fee, however, which has always been a barrier to the casual snooper.
But ZabaSearch makes it easier than ever to find comprehensive personal information on anyone.
ZabaSearch may give away some data for free, but it charges for additional information -- like background checks and criminal history reports, which may or may not be accurate. The company also plans to sell ads and other services on the search site, much like Google or Yahoo.
Launched in February, the site has emerged during a period of heightened sensitivity about data privacy and identity theft, now among the fastest-growing crimes in America. Numerous security breaches involving personal records have occurred in recent months. Earlier this week, media giant Time Warner admitted it lost the social security numbers of 600,000 employees. Other incidents of bungling or virtual burglary have compromised hundreds of thousands of personal records held by ChoicePoint, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Lexis-Nexis, among others.
Critics say ZabaSearch is exploiting the lack of data privacy in America. We unknowingly leak personal information in countless ways, the argument goes, and neither the government nor private industry provides effective ways for us to control how our digital identities are shared or sold.
Plus, an odd, often-reported connection between the company's chairman and members of the Heaven's Gate suicide cult hasn't helped make the company's image any more friendly.
But the founders of ZabaSearch maintain they're not villains, and that their service is a step toward data democratization. If your information is already out there, the logic goes, at least now you'll know about it.
Wired News sat down with Robert Zakari, ZabaSearch president and general counsel, and chairman Nicholas Matzorkis, to talk about ZabaSearch.
Wired News: How much traffic is the site receiving?
Nicholas Matzorkis: We intend to release our beta site traffic levels at the time we announce the end of our beta phase in May. But leading up to April 2005, Yahoo People Search was the most-used free people-search directory on the internet since 1998, when Yahoo acquired four11.com. After eight weeks online, ZabaSearch.com beta is processing an estimated three times as many queries as Yahoo People Search on a daily basis.
WN: Who uses the site?
Robert Zakari: Over a third of our users are media, government and companies.
Matzorkis: Based on network domains in our server logs, government use is over 20 percent. Military is 12 to 13 percent. Department of Homeland Security is around 1 percent of the government portion. Media and news agencies, about 2 to 3 percent.
Everybody feels they have the right to use this kind of a search engine, but others should not. Law enforcement tells us they think it's a great tool but question whether others should have right to use it.
There should be laws passed to ensure that access is provided in a way that reflects the public's best interest. But that is not our job. We are not given (the) task of determining those guidelines. Our job is to operate in compliance with the law as it stands. And that is what we do.
WN: Where does the data on ZabaSearch come from?
Zakari: The public domain. Information collected by the government, and information that individuals put it out into the public domain. Court records, county records, state records, information that becomes publicly available after you buy a new house or go to the post office and file a change-of-address form.
Matzorkis: When you move and fill out a change form with the post office, they record date of move and new address, then sell that to info brokers on the open market. When you apply for a credit card, and you don't check the box saying you don't want your information shared, it will be sold.
Personal information in the U.S. is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry. People realizing that right now as a result of stumbling on ZabaSearch may find that shocking, but the data has been out there for years. It's just a question of who has access. You, or the people selling it to other companies to market things to you?
WN: How many records do you have, and from what countries?
Matzorkis: ZabaSearch does not maintain a database. It is a search engine, which queries third-party public information databases. Currently, nearly 100 percent of the records displayed in ZabaSearch results are U.S. records.
The total number of records being searched is approximately 2 billion. ZabaSearch directly queries an average of about 10 to 12 public records for every adult in the U.S. If it were possible to track back the source of every public record to its origin, the total number of individual public records that exist on thousands and thousands of hard drives right now gets up into the trillions.
WN: How far back do these records go?
Matzorkis: This varies. If, for example, an address that entered a database 10 years ago could belong to someone who was at that address for 20 years before that. I'd estimate that most records displayed were entered into an initial database in the last 10 years.
WN: What do you say to domestic-violence victims, people who've been stalked or others who fear for personal safety as a result of the fact that their home addresses and phone numbers -- information they may have made efforts to keep private -- are so easily available through your site?
Matzorkis: We understand the concern. It's something we have considered. But the real solution to that problem involves more than removing that info from one database. There are laws in some states like Massachusetts, where the state will go to the data source and force the changing or removal of information. Your address, social security number or other info. They'll do that on your behalf. But opting out of every single database won't fix that problem. The data replicates too quickly in the information industry. You have to go to the core -- the state and public information level. So I would say to those people -- if you are under threat, get state help from the courts.
Zakari: Many states -- including Massachusetts, Maine, New Jersey -- have a program called the Address Confidentiality Program in which, if you can show a verifiable threat, you can have a P.O. box or non-identifiable address associated with you on all state or legal documents. If you buy a home, get a drivers license or register to vote, those are all sources of public records. But you have to go to a court to have the information masked and get protection.
WN: What about people who don't live in states where those protections exist? Why should they have to proactively defend their state-acknowledged right to privacy, and how can they? Why should the burden be on the citizen? Doesn't your company bear some responsibility?
Matzorkis: There are other sites like ZabaSearch online already. More will come.
You said there's a state-given right for privacy. There are, for some aspects of privacy -- but not for all of them. It would be good for people to better understand their rights. For example, a lot of people think that if you have an unlisted number, it cannot be legally published or printed. All you're doing is -- and it doesn't even work all the time -- preventing it from showing up in 411 or the White Pages. By unlisting your number, it doesn't mean that info can't be bought and sold in the information market all day long.
WN: I did a search on my own name with your site. The data returned was inaccurate and obsolete.
Matzorkis: Many people point out inaccuracies in many of the records. These are not inaccuracies in ZabaSearch. ZabaSearch simply displays what it finds in the public domain and makes no claims about the accuracy of the information posted.
WN: I also tried to opt out of the site. I e-mailed multiple remove requests, and an autoresponder informed me that I'd have to submit my name and other personal data. I did, but my records were never removed. I was promised that someone would respond personally, and I contacted the site three times as specified in the e-mail with all of the info requested. That felt pretty unresponsive. The data's still there, as it was when I first contacted you.
Zakari: For about three or four weeks, our autoresponder has stated that you have to mail in your request. Our company is still new. Your request may be processing now.
Matzorkis: Yes, we ask for additional info -- how else can we verify how to pull the record? There might be multiple people out there with the same names. The procedure is industry-standard, not unique to ZabaSearch. Experian and other information companies, including publicly traded ones, all follow this process. We destroy information after we've blocked a record at the person's request.
WN: So, you're acknowledging that the system is broken. How should the system as a whole be better managed? Should there be more regulations in place so that data sources have greater accountability and accessibility?
Matzorkis: The information is out there. Many people have access to it. Others don't yet. We believe that anyone whose info potentially makes up those databases should have equal access to it -- not just the people who can afford to, or know where to go to get it, or happen to have a job that gives them access to it. We find it ironic that so many people's info makes up the databases, but these individuals don't know how to get to it themselves and manage what's available about them. At least we provide them with a rough sense of what information is out there associated with them.
Zakari: The address you find on ZabaSearch may not be yours, but it is associated with you. The idea of allowing people to have the same level of access to their own info as others do who are in positions of power -- that's a benefit. Databases exist today which are only available to private investigators, financial institutions and the like. But recent examples of data loss, hacking and theft show that the rules in place to protect that data aren't working.
Matzorkis: If ZabaSearch is a haven for identity theft, what about the 80 million people in the White Pages? You can't steal someone's identity just with a name and a phone number.
WN: But my phone company lets me opt out of the directory when I first create my customer account, and there's more available on your site than just names and phone numbers.
Matzorkis: There are birth years, which are sometimes inaccurate. You can't just walk into a car dealership and say "Hi, my name is John Doe, I'm 28 years old and I live on 123 Maple Street, give me the keys." You can't just call Visa, MasterCard or a bank and have a credit card issued to you on that limited information.
ID theft is occurring because of security breaches and hacking, not because public info -- addresses, phone numbers, birth years -- have been made available on ZabaSearch. Look at the offline issues (like) using your credit card in a restaurant or at the gas pump where employees have access to that data. Even of the theft that occurs online, most is due to hacking -- there are no groups of hackers sitting around in Russia trying to figure out how they can sign up for credit cards based on seven random names and addresses they found on ZabaSearch. They are trying to figure out how they can break into a database to steal those 17,000 credit card numbers and sell them on the black market the following morning for $2 a piece.
There should be more laws to help law enforcement track that more effectively, and there should be better international cooperation to fight identity crime. Sealing public information databases won't solve the problem. If you were to turn ZabaSearch off tomorrow, it wouldn't change anything.
We do not oppose new legislation. But we are not society's caretakers. We are technologists and entrepreneurs.
WN: How did each of you end up in the personal-data business?
Matzorkis: I founded 1-800-US-Search in 1994 as a low-cost way for people to locate lost friends and family members. I've been an entrepreneur all my life and founded the company because of an experience I had being reunited with family members in Greece.
All of my grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Crete. After WWII, all communication was cut off ... from the four villages my family came from. Thirty years later my father was determined to go find our roots. He quit his job, sold the family house, pulled us out of school to go to Greece, and went to different villages to try and find our family. As a kid I couldn't understand it, but on an emotional level, pathos -- the feelings we feel as human beings -- those feelings are indescribable. Reunions on daytime talk shows are very highly rated shows because being reunited with a brother you've been separated from since birth, for instance -- there's almost nothing that can conjure up the same kind of emotion in people.
Twenty years later, around 1994, I was in the telecom business doing marketing for telecom services and realized that by combining publicly available databases, you could locate just about anybody. You don't have to spend thousands of dollars to hire a private investigator. That's when I launched 1-800-US Search.
Zakari: I joined US Search in 1996, after law school.
WN: After the company went public in 1999, you both left. What happened?
Matzorkis: The dynamic changed after the IPO. New management felt the search industry was headed in different direction than we did. I opened a wireless transaction company in China, focused on that for two years, but I always wanted to come back to this. I felt that companies in the business of selling public information weren't getting it right.
WN: What weren't they getting right?
Matzorkis: I believe the cost of that information will go down, availability will increase, and overall use will increase. Ten or 20 years ago, it wouldn't be possible to build a business around offering that data for free. But it is now. The information itself is not new. But technology has sped up the rate at which it can be obtained and reduced the cost involved.
WN: The two of you then founded a company called PeopleData. What's the difference between that business and ZabaSearch?
Matzorkis: The company still exists. It's a reseller of public record info for the purpose of locating individuals or conducting background checks. We wanted to bring the price down to zero, and decided it would be best to do that under a new brand. ZabaSearch is not a public record broker, it is a search engine. Yes, we'll offer additional information and services for a fee, but the idea is closer to Google or Yahoo -- it's a search engine that gives results and sells ads, integrated links, other services. PeopleData sells information which is not made available on ZabaSearch.
WN: A recent San Francisco Chronicle article pointed to a connection the two of you have with the Heaven's Gate suicide cult. What's the link?
Matzorkis: Several members of the group worked for 1-800-US Search, which was located in Beverly Hills. We had more than 300 employees at that time, some outside contractors. One of them, who became a full-time employee, came into my office and told me what he thought had occurred -- that there had in fact just been a mass suicide. When he told me all of this, I didn't even know who these people were, I didn't realize this was a cult.
As an employer, we don't ask people about their religious beliefs or use that as a criteria for hiring. They performed great work. He asked me if he could ask another employee to give him a ride down there to find out if what he feared had really happened. As his employer, if someone walks in and presents me with this, it would seem irresponsible to send him down there with another employee, so I offered to give this guy a ride to the house myself. I didn't believe that it had occurred. I assumed that it was a hoax or misunderstanding.
I gave him a ride, he went inside, and discovered that it had happened. So, he was an employee, and I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as a result -- now, when the media does reports on ZabaSearch or 1-800 US Search, or other companies I've done like Global Agora in China, they bring this association up. But it tends to be presented in some way that implies something which is not true. For the record, neither Robert Zakari nor I were ever members of that cult, believers in it, anything. We simply employed some people who happened to be members.
|| 06/05/2005. Wired Magazine.