Little Privacy Online, Advisers Learn

WASHINGTON -- Americans may be surrendering far more information about themselves than they realize and much of it is showing up on the World Wide Web, experts told a U.S. government hearing.


The Federal Trade Commission heard last week from credit agencies, computer experts, privacy advocates and investigators as it began four days of hearings to advise Congress on safeguarding the privacy of Americans on the Internet.


"Sitting at my computer, using only a person's name and address, I can develop a detailed profile of that person," FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said.


As the five commissioners watched, Carol Lane, author of "Naked in Cyberspace," called up revealing databases that showed everything from individuals' political donations to selected medical information.


Consumers who seek information from merchants on toll-free numbers, register to vote, send in product registration cards or surf the Internet may inadvertently be making data available about themselves.


But Gerald Cerasale of the Direct Marketing Association said purchase information is limited to helping marketers sell things and is not shared with others.


At the same time, public but once-obscure records are suddenly available with a click of the mouse. For example, Blake Hogan of Hogan Information Services said his company gathers information from federal, state and county courthouses and sells it. Information about anything else a courthouse records is available electronically. The information is in turn linked with name, address and other information, resold by others and then resold again.


Information once called "private" is also for sale. Mark Hanna, president of WDIA Corp., said his company sells Social Security numbers to anyone willing to pay $13.40 by credit card over the Internet. The Social Security number can be used to track someone's current address and telephone through services such as those provided by Lexis-Nexis.


Even very public information takes a new twist when computerized on CD Rom or through the Web. Commissioner Christine Varney said people might be revealing more than they realize just by having their telephone number and address in the telephone book. The white pages information is scanned and given away free on Web sites.


Varney said someone can look up her address on the Web, then use it to find all of the adults living in her household.


As the U.S. trade commissioners examined online privacy issues, Microsoft Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp. put their own online rivalry aside to announce a joint plan to help safeguard consumer data on the Web.


The joint Microsoft-Netscape proposal would enable computer users to specify what personal information they are willing to share and with which Web sites. But privacy advocates complained that the new format could actually entice people to give more private details than they ordinarily would by creating a routine for supplying the information.


And some FTC officials noted that the plan doesn't address the potential abuses by Web sites that collect the personal details.