On Information Superhighway, Is Anything A Secret Anymore?
When Spokane businessman Donald Barbieri hears about the information-everywhere future, he has mixed feelings.
A developer and chief executive officer of a hotel chain, Barbieri says he thinks computers will make people work smarter. He also worries that computerized information can be misused.
His uncertainties grew when The Spokesman-Review recently found his Social Security number and other personal information by having someone
search computer databases.
“I’m not real glad that anyone can find out some of those things. I thought a Social Security number was fairly private,” Barbieri said after seeing the paper’s search findings.
The newspaper, with Barbieri’s permission, paid Gonzaga University library searchers to find all they could about him in two days. The search cost about $215.
It produced a limited snapshot of Barbieri. With more money and more aggressive searching, it would have given a more detailed profile, experts say.
It also showed that electronic snooping sometimes reaps bad information: Barbieri was born in 1945, but the search found two birth dates listed, 1945 and 1946.
The search said he lives at 639 N. Riverpoint Blvd., but it also reported his property “co-owner” is Spokane resident Orval Janssen. In fact, Janssen owns a separate duplex near Barbieri’s.
Overall, the search conducted by Gonzaga University’s Regional Information Services (RIS) found nothing surprising or out-of-the-ordinary.
Gonzaga’s searchers got most of their information through CDB Infotek, a California information firm. Like other such companies, it collects computer data about shopping habits, tax records and court actions.
Those involved in information-tracking said anyone could discover more sensitive personal data by cutting ethical corners. That could produce shopping preferences, loan histories, political affiliation or driving records.
For instance, the newspaper did not obtain Barbieri’s credit history, a form routinely used by banks but sometimes obtained through misrepresentation.
The search’s main discoveries:
Barbieri’s name shows up three times in Washington court cases. He was a plaintiff in collection and condemnation suits in 1979 and 1990 and a defendant in a 1979 personal injury suit. These lawsuits were found through a state court database, not by GU.
Barbieri and his wife own condos in Kihei, Hawaii, and Sandpoint. The value of the Hawaiian condo is $686,600, with yearly taxes of $3,621.
Similar data for his Spokane and Sandpoint properties are available at assessors offices, but neither Bonner nor Spokane County makes them available by computer.
RIS Director David Buxton said the Barbieri search was something his office had not done before. RIS usually tracks down answers to specific questions for businesses.
Buxton has been part of a state panel trying to define how government records should be maintained and protected.
A critic of the panel’s vague confidentiality guidelines is former Spokane reporter Bart Preecs, now a free-lance writer in the Tri-Cities.
Part of Preecs’ concern stems from learning his credit card number had been stolen by someone on the Internet, who charged $1,200 on it before Preecs canceled the account.
“This (loss of privacy) is the debit that we’re going to pay for having this information superhighway. As a society, we have to start calculating the total gains and losses.”