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Nothing's Safe on the Web

By Michael Rutledge, Post staff reporter

In four seconds, the Social Security Administration's computers can retrieve your pay history dating to 1951 and send it over the Internet to you - or to someone pretending to be you.

It's just some of the highly personal computerized information quickly available in cyberspace for snoops armed with as little as your name and Social Security number, and sometimes your mother's maiden name for good measure.

With some anonymous key strokes, teen hackers, vengeful ex-spouses, employers or con artists can find:

Where you live and your past addresses.

Current employer, and job history - even professional standing.

Driving history, criminal history and some credit information.

What vehicles, boats and planes you own, and repair records on the plane.

A map of your street and the listed phone numbers of all your neighbors.

Portions of educational and military background.

The names of your dogs gleaned from information provided when you register a dog in your community.

Snooping has gotten so bad that Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, today plans to call for criminal sanctions against unauthorized browsing of private records.

Glenn's call was prompted by a new report done by his office that shows Internal Revenue Service employees are spending more time than ever browsing the tax returns of the rich and famous, as well as their own families, neighbors and acquaintances.

Whether it's ''prurient window peeping'' or fraud, Glenn said he wants it stopped.

The latest questionable leap forward in the quest for instant information began a month ago with the Social Security Administration's use of its Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement.

The agency itself warns users of the system that ''the Internet is an open system and we cannot absolutely guarantee that the information you are sending will not be intercepted by others and decrypted.''

''It's one of those nice ideas - good intentions with some very obvious problems,'' said Richard D. Erlich, a professor of English at Miami University and member of the American Civil Liberties Union, who calls himself and an ''inveterate computer user.''

''If someone gets your Social Security number, they can get a computer to spill its guts.''

Sometimes just an address is enough to get a Social Security number.

''If I know your address, I could come back and tell you your Social Security number, more than likely. Within a minute,'' said Bill Brodberger, a licensed private investigator and president of National Security Inc.

With a Social Security number, ''you can do quite a bit of damage, insofar as obtaining information,'' he said.

But Brodberger and several other area private detectives were surprised to learn Monday just how easy Social Security has made it to retrieve salary information.

''I think they need to be very careful about what they're opening up here,'' Brodberger said, adding the government should be at least as stringent as banks, which require written waivers from people before releasing financial information.

Given how easy it is to learn your Social Security Number - it's on Ohio and Kentucky drivers' licenses, many health insurance cards, company and university identification cards - ''you have to be careful who you tell your mother's maiden name,'' advised Jerry Bussard, owner of AAA Detective Agency.

''The Social Security Administration needs to change this right away,'' said Scott Greenwood, attorney for the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ''It's not right. It could be used by anyone: ex-spouses, prospective employers, even landlords to see how much you could afford.''

But those who run the Social Security system say the new system is cost efficient.

''We have confidence that in the huge majority of cases, the people requesting these things are the right people,'' said John Sabo, head of electronic services in the Social Security Administration. He said the new system can save millions of dollars that it costs to mail financial reports to taxpayers.

If you have someone's name and Social Security number, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles will sell you their vehicle registration information for $1.50 and a driver's abstract - complete with their last known address, accidents, three years' worth of driving offenses, license number, even the height, weight, hair and eye color listed on their driver's license. That information is not available on the Internet, although at least one Columbus-based distributor makes it available via a modem link. Otherwise, the information must be received through the mail.

Beginning in August, Ohioans will have the option of asking the bureau not to release the information, although it will continue to be made available to private investigators and credit bureaus, she said.

Publication date: 04-08-97

Cincinnati Post

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