Web Site Unites Pirated Databases

Time was when getting your hands on an individual's income, property and telephone numbers required a trip to a nearby kiosk to buy pirated discs containing illegal databases.

But now one web site is offering a one-stop, online database providing extensive confidential information about Russian citizens to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.

Radarix.com, a self-styled private detective web site registered in the United States, claims to carry three terabytes of personal data on citizens of Russia and former Soviet republics.

"Our area of activity is extensive. It does not stop with helping people search for their relatives and close friends, which by itself is invaluable," reads an e-mail sent to users who register with the site. "Only our system can help many people avoid the fate of victims of deception and criminal machinations."

The e-mail is signed by Serzh Kovalenko, identified as the development director for Radarix Group.

The site, which as recently as last week was providing individuals' home and cell phone numbers, license plate numbers and tax numbers, among other data, has sparked outrage among senior lawmakers and highlights the government's tenuous ability to keep citizens' private data from seeping into the public domain.

Last week, for example, users could log in and find details about real estate and the fleet of cars owned by legendary pop diva Alla Pugachyova, as well as her tax number.

But at least two individuals were off-limits for web surfers: President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev.

A filter on the site rebuffed attempts to access their personal information with an automated message that read: "You are requesting for information that is closed to public access."

"This is hardly surprising, since the private lives of those two individuals have long become public knowledge," said Anatoly Baranov, editor of the popular web site Msk-forum.ru. "But the good gesture may be a ploy to keep the site afloat a little longer."

Exactly how long is unclear. As of Wednesday, access to the database was blocked. Attempts to reach the site's operators for comment were unsuccessful, and it was unclear if or when the database would again be accessible.

Personal data ranging from vehicle registration to residential addresses have long been freely available on pirated discs across the country.

"However, by opening shop on the Internet, Radarix.com puts at everyone's fingertips personal information that used to require at least some trips to the market or local kiosks," said Yelena Kolmanovskaya, chief editor of Yandex.

But even at a pirated disc shop, customers looking for comprehensive private data on an individual have to purchase several discs containing databases from various ministries and government agencies. At Radarix.com, dozens of databases have apparently been merged into one giant data repository.

Because authorities have failed to combat the open sale of such information at markets and kiosks, it is logical to expect the data to end up on the Internet sooner or later, Kolmanovskaya said.

Anton Nosik, one of the pioneers of the Russian Internet, said Radarix.com posed little threat to because much of the data is old and available anyway on pirated discs.

The site could have been set up by a former security service or government official "with the aim of making a quick buck," said Nosik, who added he had registered with and browsed the site.

It is unclear exactly how Radarix.com planned to profit with its database.

Valery Komissarov, head of the State Duma Information Policy Committee, called Radarix.com "a disgrace" and vowed to call on the relevant government agencies to take immediate action against the web site.

He echoed Nosik's assessment, however, saying "the information in the database is 100 percent old."

"Years ago such sites could lay their hands on fresh data but not this time," Komissarov said. "The government now tightly controls confidential information about our citizens after we passed the law on personal data last year."

Komissarov said the site "must have been set up by those wanting to discredit Russia or portray authorities as lax."

"It is more of a one-off provocation than a mass phenomenon," he said.

Experts say Radarix.com has been a constant source of frustration for authorities, who have been unable to close the domain or block access to it because it is registered in the United States.

Baranov, the editor of Msk.forum.ru, said authorities would have to coordinate with U.S. authorities in order to close Radarix.com. "There are laws to fight unauthorized distribution of personal data, but lack of expertise has made it impossible for officials to close the site," Baranov said, adding that authorities had made "only timid efforts to fight it."

It was unclear whether a criminal case had been opened. Irina Zubareva, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's high-tech crimes department, said she could not comment because prosecutors are "dealing with the Radarix.com issue."

She declined to say whether Russian authorities had contacted their U.S. counterparts regarding the web site.

Repeated calls to the Prosecutor General's Office for comment went unanswered Wednesday.

Under the Russian criminal code, "illegal collection or distribution" of confidential information about individuals is punishable by a fine of up to 200,000 rubles, one year of community service or up to four months in jail. A public servant convicted of the crime faces a fine of up to 300,000 rubles or up to six months in jail. He can also be fired and banned from state employment for up to five years.

In the e-mail sent out to registered users, Radarix.com criticized media reports about the site, saying its "activities are completely in line with regulations in the CIS and do not contradict the norms of personal information protection rules in democratic societies."

The web site's aim is "to help those who go about their activities in a legal manner on the Internet," the e-mail said.

For unexplained reasons, obtaining registration for the site can take from several days to several months. A Moscow Times reporter was officially registered last week, five days after submitting a request.

Radarix.com first surfaced in 2003 with no notable activity, according to Whois.com, an online database of available Internet domain names.

In 2007, the domain name was re-registered in the name of Manuel Carrera Lopez, a citizen of Panama, Whois.com records show.

The domain name is currently being hosted by REDPLAID Managed Hosting, a dedicated server hosting division of Connectria Corporation, a company based in St. Louis, Missouri.

REDPLAID president Richard Waidmann said by telephone from St. Louis on Wednesday that he did not know Radarix.com in particular and could not recall Russian authorities asking that the site be closed.

"We host thousands of these web sites," Waidmann said. "I'll need to check details of this particular domain name."