Magazine article Information Today

Information Brokers and Cyberstalking. (Legal Issues)

Magazine article Information Today

Information Brokers and Cyberstalking. (Legal Issues)

Article excerpt

Independent business owners have long fought the stigma of being referred to as "information brokers." For many of us, the term "broker" conjures up a sickening feeling. In part, I blame the media, which makes no distinction between "legitimate" intermediaries (including private investigators) and those companies that employ questionable tactics to buy and sell information.

Two years after its founding in 1989, the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP) developed a Code of Ethical Business. Practice. To become a member of AIIP, an individual must agree, in writing, to accept this code. In part, it states that members must "uphold the profession's reputation for honesty, competence, and confidentiality" and "accept only those projects which are legal and are not detrimental to our profession." Failure to live up to AIIP's responsibilities is cause for expulsion.

To be honest, I haven't thought much about the term "broker" in recent years. I rarely hear the word in reference to AIIP members, which makes me believe that the organization has done a good job in eliminating the stigma that's attached to it. However, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire's recent ruling on a cyberstalking and identity-theft case has caused me to reflect on this issue once again.

Helen Remburg v. Docusearch

In late 1999, Amy Boyer was leaving work when she was shot to death by former classmate Liam Youens, who then killed himself. In their investigation, police learned that Youens maintained a Web site that detailed his obsession with Boyer. On the site, Youens mentioned that Docusearch, a Florida "information broker," was his source for locating her.

According to the court's papers, after paying small fees to Docusearch, Youens requested Boyer's birth date, Social Security number, and employment information. The work address was acquired through a Docusearch subcontractor, Michele Gambino, who allegedly lied about who she was and the purpose of her phone call.

With this revelation, Boyer's mother (Helen Remburg) and stepfather sued Docusearch. Before the case could go to a jury trial, the Supreme Court of New Hampshire was asked to rule on five questions of state law. Although Docusearch claimed it didn't know the information it provided to Youens would result in Boyer's death, the court had a different opinion about the company's liability.

On Feb. 18, the court sided with Boyer's parents on three of the five questions. First, it acknowledged that "public concern about stalking has compelled all 50 states to pass some form of legislation criminalizing stalking." Because of "the threats posed by stalking and identity theft," Docusearch and Gambino had "a duty to exercise reasonable care in disclosing" Boyer's personal information to Youens. "This is especially true when, as in this case, the investigator does not know the client or the client's purpose in seeking the information."

Second, an invasion of Boyer's privacy took place when Docusearch obtained her Social Security number without permission. According to the court, "[W]hile an SSN must be disclosed in certain circumstances, a person may reasonably expect that the number will remain private."

Third, investigators who procure information by pretexting, and then sell it, can be sued under New Hampshire's consumer-protection act. …

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