Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When Criminals Get Help from the Web ; A Wrongful-Death Lawsuit Tests Whether Internet Firms Are Liable for Selling 'Private' Information

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

When Criminals Get Help from the Web ; A Wrongful-Death Lawsuit Tests Whether Internet Firms Are Liable for Selling 'Private' Information

Article excerpt

So you think your private information is relatively safe? Think again.

For a mere $49, someone can hop on the Internet, give a company your name, wait a few days, and bingo: up pops your Social Security number. Want someone's bank account balance? That costs $45. An unpublished telephone number? $59.

It has become remarkably easy, with the advent of the Internet, for anyone to find out what people do, buy, and see. But when such information is sold to the wrong person - someone whose intent is to harm - who is accountable?

That's the question now being raised in a wrongful-death lawsuit, filed against an Internet firm for allegedly selling information to a stalker. The man used it to track down and kill a woman at her office.

Currently, there's little people can do to keep companies from selling such information, although Congress is on the case. This session, some 50 bills have been introduced to regulate this practice. One of those bills, sponsored by Rep. Judd Gregg (R) of New Hampshire, would stop the sale of Social Security numbers without a person's specific permission.

On the question of liability, though, the answers are less obvious. The wrongful-death lawsuit - from Mr. Gregg's home state of New Hampshire - is now testing whether companies are culpable when they sell data to someone with nefarious intents.

One problem with privacy-invasion suits is that the companies may not have broken any laws. "It's very difficult to argue privacy in court," says Sarah Andrews, a policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "It's hard to prove there has been a breach of law when there aren't any laws in place."

The New Hampshire wrongful-death suit stems from the murder of Amy Boyer. Her killer, a man obsessed with her since 10th grade, left evidence that he tracked her down through the online personal- data service Docusearch.com.

On his own Web site, Liam Youens detailed his plans for killing Boyer, including how he found her: "I found an internet site to do that, and to my surprize [sic] everything else under the Sun. Most importantly: her current employment. It's accually [sic] obsene [sic] what you can find out about a person on the internet." After shooting Boyer, he turned the gun on himself.

Stunned that such information could be purchased by anyone, Boyer's parents, Tim and Helen Remsburg, recently filed a suit against Docusearch.com. They also testified before a Senate subcommittee about the killing.

"If this young man had not been able to buy her Social Security number ... and employer's address, she'd be here now," says Mr. Remsburg. "[Youens] needed help, and he depended entirely on these search companies to lead him with a red carpet right to Amy's door."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center and similar groups urge tough regulation of companies that gather such data. …

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