In today's technologically advanced society, those in the know (or want to know) are constantly developing new ways to get at your private information. As a result, privacy laws are in a perpetual state of evolution in efforts to keep up with that technology. In the field of private investigation, we have to take continual steps to keep up with those laws to avoid ending up on the wrong side of them. If you're undertaking an investigation, you'd better keep up, too. As stated in previous blogs, I'm not an attorney. I have one on retainer. Get your own.
As the title suggests, when ones private information is made available for public viewing, it can feel like standing naked in Times Square. This blog post will hopefully cover ways to get at information on a subject and ways to hide your own "private parts".
We'll go over some simple, cheap and easy techniques for information gathering as well as some that are more costly, time consuming and advanced. The same goes for covering up your own tracks: there are simple and easy options as well as ones more cumbersome and time-consuming. Its all up to you. How much time and money do you want to spend to find out what you want to know or keep your private life private?
Setting all that aside for a moment, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not mention that there are individuals out there who will offer you for a price any information you desire. Beware of the laws. Beware of information brokers with fly-by-night businesses. Beware of governmental agencies setting you up for a sting. On a weekly basis, I hear from other private investigators who have been approached and asked to dig up information that would be illegal to obtain. One detective even commented recently that on one of these sting calls the caller ID showed "US Government". Stings are set up all the time in efforts to weed out unscrupulous information providers. Personally, I hope the government catches all the bad guys. Of course, they'll have to start using *67, caller ID blocking, if they want to do it right ;).
This is going to come as a shock to some of you, but one of the biggest violators of your privacy will be YOU. I'm sure some readers are wondering how that can be the case since they're not peeping in their own windows at themselves or tapping their own phone lines. Seriously, so many clients are unaware when they come to us about the incredibly simple things they can do to limit their vulnerabilities and do some damage control after already exposing themselves, so to speak.
Let's take, for example, some of the big topics that're always in the news: social networking sites on the internet. Private investigators and attorneys LOVE social networking sites. They provide a treasure trove of information on individuals who are simply out to socialize, share histories and good times, and simply don't know how to use privacy settings.
Facebook has been all over the news for their privacy settings changes...and more changes...and changes to the changes. It can be hard to keep up on all of that. Personally, I recommend SOPHOS' Facebook Security tips , AllFacebook(which has a downloadable privacy guide), and Facebook Wall (an unofficial Facebook guide). Yes, there are other sites out there. If in doubt about your security on those sites, simply google "site name security tips" or "site name privacy settings", substituting your favorite site for "site name" ;).
So many court cases have been won, lost or settled out of court simply because someone decided to post the wrong comments, pictures, libel or threats. Be careful what you say online. Just because you're not face to face or "in real life" (IRL), doesn't make a threat or defamation non-existent.
Even employers are looking on social networking sites at potential and current employees. Employers will try to decide if you're a good fit with their firm or if that sick time you requested was really sick time or time theft.
And did you know that you can delete whatever you want from your page, but the history of what existed previously can be subpoenaed from the company that runs the social networking site? Its all still there on their servers for posterity...and litigation.
Consider your safety, too. Are you posting pictures of your children? Are they standing in front of their daycare or school where you can read the sign? Can anyone see these pictures and do you trust them?
Are you posting your vacation plans online? Do you trust everyone there? Many crimes have been reported where the offending party ended up being a trusted facebook "friend". Be careful to whom you give your trust.
Another pitfall, which I've mentioned in a previous blog, is what gets thrown in the trash. Its incredible what people will throw away without a second thought. As a matter of fact, I learned more about my neighbors than I ever cared to know. Once my dog decided to play detective and do his own trash pull, bringing the neighbors' trash back to my yard to tear up and inspect.
Trash archeology, garbology, trash pull. Whatever you call it, one can glean a lot more than banana peels from a little stinky effort. Phone bills, credit card receipts and offers, prescription drug bottles. Think about it: when was the last time you re-filled your prescription, went to pick it up, and you were asked for ID? Pretty rare, isn't it? So if Joe Criminal finds your empty pill bottle in your trash, likes the flavor of the week, calls in your refill and picks it up? Nice.
Anything with Personally Identifiable Information (PII), or information that can be used by itself, or with other information, to identify a single individual, needs to be protected. If a criminal is able to pull a bit of information from one piece of your trash, a bit from another, etc...he may be able to use that information to exploit your identity, among other crimes.
Another interesting part of trash archeology, which can be a bit frightening to some, is the thought that one can establish a lifestyle profile from the effort. Although it would be ideal to make multiple trash pulls and examine them over a period of time, even one trash pull can provide enough information to get a general picture.
For example: Its fairly plain to spot if one has children. Kids generate a lot of child-specific trash. Eating behaviors are significant. One can take a look at several trash bags with microwaveable diet dinner packages and surmise that a single woman might live in that abode. Drinking, smoking, and even drug habits can become evident. Evidence of sexual activity, along with DNA samples, might be available. True, that's a bit gross, but its helpful in cheating spouse and custody cases.
Giving someone access to your private life via your trash can be limited, but its up to you to set those limits. My advice when it comes to throwing things away: if in doubt, shred it. If you can't shred it, burn it. Whatever the case, think about what you're throwing away before you toss it out.
Once you put your trash on your curb, "beyond the curtilage" as its referred to in legal terms, it is considered public domain. There may be some limitations based on local laws, so check those out with your attorney. However, when its on the curb, access is easy.
Besides burning and limiting the PII you toss, you can also keep your trash cans away from the curb. The preference would be inside your home, if you have that option, until as close to the time of trash pick-up as possible.
Otherwise, your trash may become another man's treasure.
To be continued...