Privacy is a thing of the past, says private investigator

Private eye Steven Rambam explains what he does, how he knows everything about you and why he's not the one you should be worried about.

In his 25 years in business, Steven Rambam has worked on some high-profile cases, including tracking down Nazi war criminals in Canada. He also owns PallTech, an investigative database service with more than 25 billion records on US citizens and businesses.

What do you do as a private investigator?

We are not the traditional Rockford or Magnum, P.I. type of investigator. We'll do very difficult missing persons cases, a lot of sophisticated financial fraud work, a lot of insurance company work, a lot of disappearances.

What's in your PallTech databases?

We have pretty much every American's name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, telephone number, personal relationships, businesses, motor vehicles, driver's licenses, bankruptcies, liens, judgments -- I could go on and on.

Who has access to your data?

This is a database that's restricted to law enforcement, private investigators, security directors of companies and people who have a genuine need.

How do you safeguard it?

The most restrictive rule is my own personal ethics. In 20 years, we haven't had a single lawsuit or complaint.

What has changed in the past few decades?

Two things. The first is computing power. I have in my office storage and databases and artificial intelligence scripts and behind-the-scenes links that are far more powerful and comprehensive than J. Edgar Hoover's wildest dreams.

The other thing is the mind-boggling level of self-contributed data. The average person now willingly puts on the Internet personal information about himself that 20 years ago people would hire an investigator to try and get. It's extraordinary. If you know how to use the Internet, 75 percent of an investigation can be conducted sitting in your pajamas.

Do you see this as a bad thing?

On the contrary, there are good reasons for most of this to be out there. It's not out there because these are nefarious, evil people trying to be the new Big Brother. It's because this is truly a new engine of capitalism. Where it gets a little creepy is when they aggregate all of this data together and have an extraordinary profile of you.

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How can businesses protect their intellectual capital, particularly when it's in electronic form?

You can have five firewalls in a safe room with the most current locks monitored by 24/7 motion-detecting, IP-addressable cameras, and all of that is meaningless if a 16-year-old kid can social-engineer a root password out of you. The downside to all of this publicly available information is that it's now a lot easier to social-engineer somebody.

Should businesses hire a company like yours?

They should if they don't want a back door or a Trojan [horse] on their system. A year ago, a company called me from Hong Kong and said, "We're being extorted. We're getting e-mails from an individual saying if we don't give a series of payments through PayPal, he is going to take [our] source code and post it on the Internet."

We were able to determine who the guy was in 24 hours. He was a 14-year-old kid in California.

What about smear campaigns on the Web? If you're a victim, what should you do about it?

You have to have zero tolerance. You have to find out who the person is, and you have to sue them within an inch of their life, and you have to do it publicly and post it on your Web site, talking about the entire case from beginning to end.

Government databases are the biggest repository of private information. Should the public be concerned about that?

The scary thing to me is not that information is open, but that the government is trying to use every pretext and every trick to hide information from its citizens. That I think is much more nefarious and will be much more detrimental in the long run than having information out there.

Some of the things the Bush administration is doing are just incomprehensible. For example, they're reclassifying data that's been in the public eye -- that has been available to the public since 1991. Why, I can't begin to guess.

Another slippery, slimy thing is that the FBI has signed contracts with some private data providers. Polygraphs [and] background investigations are being outsourced, and the Freedom of Information Act does not apply. If you say to the FBI, "I want the report that ChoicePoint furnished to you about me," they say to you, "Sorry, we can't give that to you. That's a private business record." This is really a fairly sinister development. And it's one that's profoundly un-American.

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Given the amount of personal information out there and the fact that you aggregate it, does the public have reason to fear the misuse of personal data controlled by PallTech or other aggregators?

No, because frankly, we are more accountable than the US government. You can sue us; you can subpoena us. You can hold us to task if we do something improper. Not so the US government.

Can people protect their privacy by creating an anonymous Web presence?

If you think when you do a search on Google that because you're not logged in and your IP address is being assigned from a Verizon pool that you're anonymous, that's ridiculous.

So where are we going?

Privacy is dead. Get over it. You can't put the genie back in the bottle.