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ZabaSearch.com and Personal Privacy on the Web


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, new restrictions on who can be a sperm donor.

First, this: New technology and the World Wide Web. A new online search engine can find all sorts of interesting data about people you are interested in, including unlisted phone numbers, birthdays, the addresses of places where they've lived, even satellite pictures of where they're living now. Cool, huh? But wait a minute. If ZabaSearch has all that stuff on them, what do you suppose it has on you? And what about the idea of privacy? Here's DAY TO DAY technology contributor Xeni Jardin.

XENI JARDIN reporting:

A search for personal data on ZabaSearch.com tends to generate one of two reactions: curiosity or panic.

Mr. SEAN BONNER (Los Angeles Art Gallery Owner): It was pretty creepy.

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JARDIN: As blogger and art gallery owner Sean Bonner of Los Angeles discovered when he searched for his own name, a free query on the site returns a lot of data, some of it inaccurate, that can go back for several years.

Mr. BONNER: I was pretty surprised at all the stuff that came up.

JARDIN: What did you see?

Mr. BONNER: I saw lots of places I had lived in the past, phone numbers I used to have, from as recently as last year to as long ago as 10 years ago.

JARDIN: The free information can even include birth month and year, unlisted phone numbers and satellite photos of your house. But ZabaSearch Chairman Nick Matzorkis doesn't understand the alarm. He says all this information comes from the public domain.

Mr. NICK MATZORKIS (Chairman, ZabaSearch): When you move and you fill out a change of address form at the post office, the post office gathers all that data and sells it off to information brokers. When you apply for a credit card--the information industry in the United States is a multibillion-dollar industry. The reality is that the toothpaste is out of the tube.

JARDIN: And there's no shortage of prospective buyers. ZabaSearch is hardly the only service of its kind. Yahoo!'s free people search, for example, returns names, phone numbers and addresses, but only ones already in the public phone books. Other companies sell much more sensitive information than ZabaSearch offers, including aliases, bankruptcy records and tax liens, but those services at a significant price tag that tends to discourage casual impulse snoopers. ZabaSearch charges for detail, like background checks, and criminal history reports.

The company also plans to sell ads and other services. That angers critics who accuse ZabaSearch of exploiting the lack of privacy protections in America. George Washington University law Professor Daniel Solove is author of "The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age."

Professor DANIEL SOLOVE (George Washington University; Author, "The Digital Person"): We have information that's out there that is being used in ways that cause severe problems to a lot of individuals; a kind of pollution of sorts, a kind of exploitation of sorts, with very little to regulate or control what the companies do with it.

JARDIN: ZabaSearch's Matzorkis argues the company is just democratizing access to data that's already available to people in business and government. He asserts that the service actually helps the people listed there.

Mr. MATZORKIS: ZabaSearch provides people at least some sense of what information is available out there about them.

JARDIN: Launched in February, ZabaSearch emerged during a period of heightened sensitivity about identity theft. Security breaches have recently struck several companies like ChoicePoint, Bank of America and LexisNexis, exposing millions of personal records. Matzorkis says it's ridiculous to blame ZabaSearch and its limited data for those kinds of problems.

Mr. MATZORKIS: It just doesn't work that way. You can't call Visa or MasterCard or a bank and have a credit card issued to you on that limited information. This is not where identity theft is occurring, and I think it's important for the media to report that.

JARDIN: Law Professor Solove believes ZabaSearch is symptomatic of a larger problem: government and industry groups' refusal to protect consumer privacy.

Prof. SOLOVE: I think we need more laws. Regulation is the only way that this can be effectively dealt with, because for some time, the companies have been saying, `Of course, we're going to protect privacy.' But that still doesn't really--and hasn't worked to protect us.

JARDIN: If you don't want your information to appear on ZabaSearch, you can ask to be removed, though many users have complained that their data wasn't pulled in a timely manner or that the site made it hard to file an opt-out request. And the site requires you to submit personal information so they can identify which records to delete. But even if you do manage to opt out of ZabaSearch, Matzorkis says they can't promise you won't end up right back in there later, when the site buys a new batch of data.

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JARDIN: For NPR News in Los Angeles, I'm Xeni Jardin.

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CHADWICK: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Xeni Jardin
Xeni Jardin can be heard on NPR’s Day to Day, offering technology insights for listeners nationwide. Jardin is also a contributing writer for Wired Magazine, as well as a tech culture journalist and co-editor of the collaborative weblog BoingBoing.net, the award-winning "Directory of Wonderful Things."