Public Databases Make Information Too Public

The Internet is the world of free information. Thanks to online public databases, people finder websites and social media networks, we have instant access to vast amounts of information at our fingertips. 

Because the Internet is such an open environment, we rely on it to not only make information immediately available, but to also handle our data securely. Personal information can be used to gain automatic access to certain programs, like using your Facebook credentials to play games or connecting your Gmail account to YouTube and other social media platforms. With the Internet boosting convenience and efficiency, some big information security questions remain:

What information of yours is available on the Internet? Where is it available, and to whom? How do applications use your personal information across different platforms? And, most importantly, how can you remove that information from the Internet? 

To find these answers, let’s start by getting a better understanding of information privacy.

The Information Privacy Debate

The Ohio State Law Journal details the two sides of the information privacy debate: information should be free and available to everyone versus information should be kept completely private at the individual’s discretion.

Proponents for free information argue that access to information should be available to the public for three reasons:

  1. public means public, the people have the right to free information;
  2. public information is a key tool in encouraging fair and accurate media reporting;
  3. public records allow attorneys cost-friendly means of gathering information.

However, those on the other side of this debate are concerned that public records may be too public – allowing identity thieves easy access to sensitive information through public online databases. These information privacy advocates also fear that access to public information could facilitate embarrassment through medical or criminal records, or allow discrimination by employers or renters.

The Crossroads of Public Records and Personal Information

While information such as health and financial records are kept private by law, much of your personal information can be accessed through online public records like court filings, marriage/death licenses, background checks and property records. Additionally, the digital imprints you leave behind when using the Internet – comments, likes, shares, and public posts – can often provide more information about you than you may think. Online databases such as directories and “people finder” websites pull your information from these sources, ultimately creating a place to obtain your information legally and without your knowledge. Information accessed through these online databases can include, but is not limited to: name, personal and business addresses, personal and business phone numbers, employment history, tax information, gender, date of birth, email addresses, criminal history and family member information.

List of Records Readily Available to the Public

Personal Records:

Voter records, tax records, driver’s licenses, professional licenses, hunting/fishing licenses,
phone listings, etc.

Property Records:

Vehicle/boat licenses, homeowner licenses/information, business listings, etc.

Financial Records:

Bankruptcy records, professional licenses, business financials, etc.

Criminal Records:

Driver history, court judgements, sex offender lists, etc.

Online Profiles:

Social media, email, games, instant messenger, etc.

Source: Opt-Out

Third-party who?

Beyond widespread public information databases, another way that your information is shared online is through third-party providers. The term “third-party” is commonly used, but what does it mean? Third-party applications provide users with services that are not offered by the manufacturer itself (i.e. downloadable iPhone camera apps, Snapchat make-your-own filters, Facebook games, etc.).

Social media platforms utilize third-parties to add features to their products, hoping to draw out as much user information and participation as possible. In exchange for free services, these companies share their users’ information with their third-party providers.

While this may seem shocking, what these platforms are doing is not illegal. Deep within those privacy policies we often overlook, companies explain that your information may be shared with their third-party services. By clicking “agree” to use any of those third-party services, you are unknowingly allowing companies to share your information.

[RELATED: Do you know about these privacy policy loopholes?]


What, if anything, can you do?

Since your personal information is readily available on the Internet, how can you protect yourself from those attempting to misuse your information?

  • Opt-out of online directories and people finder websites. Consider using USA Today’s guide to deleting yourself from the Internet and ZDNet’s guide to removing yourself from people finder websites.
  • Avoid using existing online profiles to connect to third-party applications, such as the ones that suggest you connect via Facebook, Twitter or Gmail. Consider creating a separate profile used specifically for games, apps and other third-party services not connected to any other online profile.
  • Read the privacy policies. While most privacy policy agreements are long and dense, they give you an idea of how a company will be using your information. Avoid using services that provide vague privacy policy agreements or state they will share your information with third-party providers.
  • Be aware of what you post publicly to social media and other online forums. Learn more about how to manage your digital identity.

For more tips on protecting your identity, continue reading our content on Fighting Identity Crimes, and let us help you stay on top of the latest breaches and scams in the news.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of EZShield Inc. alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any other person or entity, including specifically any person or entity affiliated with the distribution or display of this content.

John is General Counsel and Chief Privacy Officer of Sontiq, the parent company of the EZShield and IdentityForce brands. He is a Certified Compliance...
Read more about John Burcham.

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