Private Eyes Cramped by Privacy Breach

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In the weeks after they announced major security breaches, data brokers like ChoicePoint and Lexis-Nexis have imposed restrictions on access to Americans' personal information. Some of their clients are no longer allowed access to social security and drivers license numbers. NPR's Larry Abramson reports on the affects this has had on private investigators, who have come to rely on personal data to solve cases.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Earlier this year there was an outcry in Congress and among the public over the theft of personal information from data brokers like ChoicePoint and LexisNexis. The companies disclosed that data on hundreds of thousands of Americans may have been compromised. In response, they limited access to sensitive data, such as Social Security numbers. That's making life difficult for private investigators. They say the tactic won't protect consumer privacy but will make it harder to track down criminals. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:

In February, Georgia-based ChoicePoint announced that thieves had illegally accessed names, addresses and other information that identifies 145,000 people. ChoicePoint's Don McGuffey says in response the company quickly limited access to one of the most widely used identifiers in the United States, the Social Security number.

Mr. DON McGUFFEY (ChoicePoint): ...as a result of that, are now no longer distributing full Socials or driver's license numbers to the majority of customers who historically received that kind of information.

ABRAMSON: LexisNexis, which suffered its own data spill, put similar measures in place. Private investigators say these moves have made it almost impossible for them to track down people wanted for lawsuits and criminal investigations. William Stollhans, a private eye with Potomac Investigative Services in Vienna, Virginia, says that without a full Social Security number, it's hard to find people with common names.

Mr. WILLIAM STOLLHANS (Potomac Investigative Services; President, Virginia Private Investigators Association): If you're looking for a Linda Smith in Cleveland, you're going to find dozens of Linda Smiths with the same identical first three digits because many of them would have all been issued in the same area, 'cause that's what that first three digits mean. It's the area that the Social Security number was issued.

ABRAMSON: As president of the Virginia Private Investigators Association, Stollhans is hearing lots of complaints from colleagues about the crackdown on Social Security numbers and, he says, on access to the date of birth.

Mr. STOLLHANS: The date of birth now, we usually can only get the month and the year of birth, not the exact date.

ABRAMSON: Some private investigators are negotiating with the data brokers, hoping for access to more information. And they're lobbying Congress, which is considering legal limits on the use of sensitive information. Many lawmakers have said that these numbers should never be released without the consent of the owner. But California private investigator Tamara Thompson says there's no right to that kind of anonymity.

Ms. TAMARA THOMPSON (Private Investigator): Well, that's like, you know, let's say in a court situation if somebody said, `Well, I don't really want to be a witness, and if you can't get my permission, then you can't bring me into court.'

ABRAMSON: Thompson has been writing about the impact of the new rules on her blog, PI News Link. She says the new policies allow witnesses and deadbeat parents to hide more easily. And, Thompson says, then there are the people who don't know they need to be found.

Ms. THOMPSON: So, for example, I had a case where I had an heir or set of heirs that I had to locate to an estate. They hadn't been in touch with the decedent ever. They didn't even know who the decedent was. But they were actually the next of kin.

ABRAMSON: ChoicePoint says that PIs will just have to find other ways to do business without this information. ChoicePoint's Don McGuffey says Social Security numbers have to be protected because they allow thieves to open up lines of credit; it's where the money is.

Mr. McGUFFEY: If a thief is interested in trying to commit identity theft or other types of crimes, then taking that information enables one to commit that crime much more effectively.

ABRAMSON: Private investigators say ChoicePoint's policy won't deter the kinds of thieves who stole information from the company. And privacy advocates, like Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, say ChoicePoint isn't really protecting consumers' privacy because big clients can still get access to Social Security numbers.

Mr. CHRIS HOOFNAGLE (Electronic Privacy Information Center): What they've done, essentially, is that they've continued to sell full reports with the Social Security number to big businesses. They've just cut out the small businesses.

ABRAMSON: And because most private eyes are small customers of ChoicePoint, many will also have to prove that they are legitimate businesses. Some will even get a personal visit from the information giant. One PI said he balked when ChoicePoint checked him out. The company wanted him to fax in a whole bunch of personal information, including his Social Security number. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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