By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Sipping a Coke and munching fries at Hooters, David Muskowitz doesn't look much like fearsome Big Brother. More like nerdy nephew, a 25-year-old with a pudgy face and baggy jeans, laughing with the waitress about old school days at Piper High. He's a nice guy; it's his power that's scary.
From a homemade computer in a messy room in Tamarac, Muskowitz can invade your privacy, discovering more than you probably want a stranger to know. Within minutes he's grabbed your social security number, then your unlisted telephone number. Give him a few minutes more, and he's gathered your work history, how many traffic tickets you've had, and whether you've ever been divorced or sued.
What's really scary is that there's nothing special about Muskowitz. "Anyone can get into this business overnight," he says. "Anyone can do it from their home. That's what people don't like to hear, that it's so easy to do."
Sitting at his computer, Muskowitz represents the coming together of two powerful computer-driven forces: the global marketing reach of the Internet and massive new information databases -- all linked to telephone lines in his Tamarac home. From there Muskowitz runs an Internet-based, information-search business called Discreet Research, "with access to billions of public records." Tapping into a network of databases, he helps clients find lost friends and relatives, compiles background reports on prospective employees, tracks down debtors, and checks out potential business partners and boyfriends.
In those billions of public records are billions of very personal details, yet Muskowitz is free to pull them into his computer without being licensed, without undergoing a background check or taking a course or passing a test. Indeed, when not at his computer, Muskowitz works at another job, which is cleaning carpets.
To privacy groups this lack of regulation is troubling because as personal computers have grown more powerful they have given records searchers like Muskowitz access to vast storehouses of personal information. This can lead to abuses, like a California salesman rejected for job after job who finally learned the reason: A thief stole his wallet and later used that identification when arrested on other charges. That means the salesman's identifying data went into criminal justice computers -- to be called up by potential employers doing computer background checks. The salesman eventually declared bankruptcy.
Nowadays records once stored in a single county courthouse can be accessed from around the world. With governments, businesses, and nonprofit groups all selling databases, information middlemen buy and merge these separate files into comprehensive "data warehouses," permitting individual searchers like Muskowitz to open a national records business without actually possessing any records.
For a small access fee, he roams these data warehouses, resulting in what he calls, with pride, "the Super Snooper, an awesome report."
Starting with nothing more than a person's name, Super Snooper gathers from public records more than twenty pieces of information -- from social security number to divorce proceedings, from property ownership to traffic accidents -- all for a client charge of $70; Muskowitz's search costs are about half that. How long does it take him to collect that much information on a person? About 30 minutes -- and all from his home computer.
Muskowitz acknowledged there is potential danger in this power. "There are bad information services and good information services; I don't want to be classified as one of the bad guys. Some of them really jack up their price. Some of them don't follow the rules, like screening customers. It's possible they could somehow obtain illegal information. I stay away from that stuff. There's enough money doing it the right way."
These days all is not well at Discreet Research, however, for Muskowitz was indiscreet, learning the hard way that in this interconnected world he who lives by the Internet can also die by the Internet: Among the searchers surfing his Website there lurked a shark in the form of a reporter from the Washington Post.
"He called me for an interview, and it was real nice at first, but then the man started going into some areas I didn't want to talk about, trying to ask me to do illegal searches. I don't do such things. I didn't feel comfortable with him, so I called back and said please leave me out of your article. But apparently he didn't."
On March 8, Muskowitz made his own entry into the Washington Post's Internet database. Under a front-page headline "Data Firms Getting Too Personal?" the Post launched a three-part series on privacy threats posed by the data warehouses and information brokers, highlighting among other firms little Discreet Research, whose Internet home page "recently showed an eye peering through a peephole."
"We're just trying to do a professional job," the Post quoted Muskowitz, who had demonstrated his skills by taking only two minutes to track down the reporter's social security number.
"I was doing just fine before the Washington Post came along," Muskowitz lamented last week. "I shouldn't have said a word to them. They've already caused me problems." The Post had revealed an information service Discreet offered under the Website heading "Cool Stuff." It's a "disguised free gift-packaged" phone card, which worked like this: A Discreet client sends the card to a subject as a "gift" with 60 minutes of free calling time. When the subject uses the card, Discreet -- through coding on the card -- is able to trace the phones the subject uses and the numbers called.