Privacy Ref Blog

How easy are you to find using limited personal information?

This weekend I was involved in an event that allowed me to see just how easy it is to find an individual given a minimum of personal information. I knew it would be easy, but how easy was the surprise.

A Friday evening visitor

It began Friday evening during a religious service when an individual approached a house of worship but did not enter. Dressed in fatigues, combat boots, and a military style jacket he was carrying half a loaf of bread; his overall appearance caused some fear to run through the gathered congregation.

A congregational leader went outside and spoke to the visitor to understand why he was there and how we could help. Suffice it to say it was a strange discussion leaving the leader uneasy. However the leader had  gotten a name, email address, telephone number, and town of residence from the visitor during the discussion.

The whole event was suspicious so, as the visitor left the area, the local police were called.

The police response

Given simply the visitor’s name and town, a picture of our visitor was displayed on the police officer’s laptop in minutes. Our local towns have one zip code each, so to me this shows how valuable name and zip code alone can be for marketing purposes.

A few hours later we received a call from the responding officer. He had contacted nearby towns’ police to gather more information and then the visitor himself to successfully close out the event. To me this was just a standard investigation that the police would do without the need  to rely on additional electronic records.

The amateur sleuths find more personal information

Since Friday night some of our congregants have undertaken to learn more about our visitor. Since there is a limit to what the police can share, the congregants wanted to feel safe by gaining more information. Using just the name and town as a starting pointing for their search, the congregants have collected My Space pages, pictures, news items, and other information with each find giving another starting point for the next set of searches. The congregation now has a pretty good understanding of the visitor in case he decides to come to visit again.

Some observations

The information used by the police to find, understand, and communicate with the visitor was no different than that which would have been done 20, 30, or even 50 years ago. The only difference was how the information was stored and accessed thereby making the process much faster.

However, the search for information by congregants was certainly aided by technology. More importantly, the technology itself enabled the visitor to provide the information himself, have his friends and acquaintances provide the information (with or without his permission), and allowed businesses to provide information as well.

Self disclosure is an individual decision and each of us needs to decide how comfortable we are with sharing personal information. However, a business  must decide how much it wants to contribute to the public profile of its customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

It is critical for a business to determine a policy on this subject then do an inventory of personal information used in the business. This inventory should determine when the personal information is collected, how it is processed, how it is stored, how it is transmitted, how it is protected, and who (both internally and externally) has access to the personal information.

The defined policy and the findings of the inventory should be reflected in the business’s privacy notice and, if necessary, used as a platform to begin an improvement plan.

Privacy Ref provides consulting and assessment services to build and improve organizational privacy programs. For more information call Privacy Ref at (888) 470-1528 or email us at info@privacyref.com

Posted on May 5, 2013 by Bob Siegel
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