Friday, May 7, 2010

What's Your Public Privacy IQ?

I am SUCH a slacker. It has now been MONTHS since I have worked on my entry from February on public privacy. The original entry included 25 questions about public privacy, and I started answering them three at a time. Rather than making you hunt back through those entries, I have added both the questions and answers here in all of their glory. As a side note, we cannot live our lives in fear, and should not do so. We should, however, use wisdom with information we choose to disseminate about ourselves, our lives, and our loved ones:

25 Questions about Your Privacy:

1. T/F Anyone may have access to my telephone bill.

Telephone Bills: This one is tricky, so bear with me. While this is not the type of information anyone may pull up on the Internet, telephone bills are often used as evidence. A few examples this might include evidence that you were on the phone or texting at the time you got into an accident or got a ticket, spending excessive time on a phone at work (say, your job is to supervise at a jail and two inmates kill another inmate while you are on a personal phone call), or to help identify a connection between two individuals. Yes, certain government entities may get access to these records, but anyone may ask for them as evidence in court, and they must be provided.

Answer: False, unless there are legal proceedings involved, and then the answer would be True.

2. T/F Anyone may find out when and where I was married.

Marriage Records: True. Marriage records are public domain. When we purchased our home, there was a strip of land bordering our land that had questionable ownership. This brings me to #9.

3. T/F Anyone may find out if I had a parking violation.

Parking violations - absolutely available to anyone. If an employer wants to double-check your driving record, they can do so in a round-about manner by visiting justice courts individually and asking if there are any dockets containing information on you. It's a long process, but I happen to know that military recruiters frequent courthouses for that very reason. While you won't get a warrant from not paying a traffic ticket, you may certainly wind up with a warrant by failing to pay a traffic ticket. That means that you get to pay a lot more money, and you could get taken in if you show up at a jail to visit a friend. If you can't pay a ticket, show up, ask the judge for more time, and make payment arrangements. If the judge asks you to do something you can't handle (pay fines you can't afford, etc., just respectfully ask for an adjustment.

4. T/F Anyone may find out about law violations I had prior to age 18.

Law violations I had prior to age 18. - Juvenile court records are highly protected except in situations where you are tried as an adult. These would be some pretty serious situations, but for the most part, the law gives adults the benefit of the doubt when it comes to dumb things we do as kids. Nowadays kids can wind up in detention for something like toilet papering a house. Wow! That's something we did as kids for fun, and my dad even gave us permission! There are a few situations where juvenile records can come back to bite you, including certain federal positions, but for the most part, False. These records are only available to a very few.

5. T/F Anyone may find out about law violations I had after age 18.

Law violations I had after age 18 - Some may think that law violations are much more protected than something little like a traffic violation, however, this, too is public information! Law violations are available to the public. Just stroll down to the courthouse, have them search for a docket for a specific name, and locate a court case number. Sometimes these are even available online for free. Anyone may find out about these. Historically newspaper writers visited courthouses to publish marriage licenses, and word-for-word details on court cases. Today, news reporters may do the same. Thank goodness they are so interested in making a big splash, so the majority of individuals are safe! True.

6. T/F Anyone may find out if and why I spent time in jail.

See below #7.

7. T/F Anyone may find out if and why I spent time in prison.

Six and seven - true. In fact, in many states, there is an online database into which you may type a name and locate anyone incarcerated within the past few years. Here is where you really need to keep your wits about you. If you have a reason to search for someone, be careful, because there are a LOT - ahem, A LOT of companies out there just feeding off of ignorant individuals who don't know that they can get this information for free or for a reasonable fee. In fact, most of the other information I mention that is public falls into that same category. To obtain certain public domain records, you don't have to contact a company like Vital Records dot com or online investigation companies. Instead, you may simply request a copy from the entity that created it, keeping in mind that often there are copies of the same records available from more than one such entity. See below for details.

8. T/F Anyone may find out when and where I was born.

Now, births are a highly protected class of records. Good gravy, and when it comes to adoptions, it gets even more complex!!! I will save that discussion for another day, however. Birth records are often protected for about the same number of years as census records are protected, and even then some states (or countries) require you to state your relationship to the individual. If someone was trying to obtain your birth certificate without your permission, it is highly likely that you might be contacted and informed of the query.

That being said, there are situations where vital record departments have made digital or microfilmed copies of records and the repositories for these records may not extend the same protection over those records. These instances are rare, but even I have stumbled across modern record sets that were not protected like they should be. On a positive note, for historical purposes these copies may mean that rather than paying the Vital Records or Health Department $20.00 for a certified copy of an ancestral record, you may be able to go to the state archives for a $.50 copy of the same thing!

9. T/F Anyone may find out details about my divorce.

True. Divorce records are also not in the protected class, similar to Marriage records. Back to my story, I could not locate the individual who owned the land using my usual methods, so I contacted the county courthouse and asked about a possible divorce. Yes, a divorce took place after this person purchased the land, but the land was still in the name of that initial marriage. Next I searched for a second marriage for this individual, and found the second marriage. I then used my usual search methods and found her to discuss the land in question. Answer? True.

10. T/F Anyone may find out my mother's maiden name.

This one is tricky. Obviously there are many ways one may get this information. There are also these online personal information pages that associate your name with past addresses, and then match up that data with others who lived at the same location the same time you lived there. This is one way to match up personal associations you have had, or possible family members. Don't forget about obituaries, that very helpful family member who loads onto the Internet your family tree, including the living family members, and a hundred different alternate possibilities.

I guess the main reason I include this question is to get people thinking about personal security. What question are you asked when you call the bank? Try, "What is your mother's maiden name?" This one backfired on me years ago. I had a family member with my SSN, my mother's maiden name, and enough information to create some financial trouble for me. What did I do? For starters, I told my bank a different name. Nothing says you have to give them your ACTUAL mother's maiden name, so I made one up. Technically, no, this information SHOULD not be accessible at first glance, but then, if someone knows where THEY were married...

11. T/F Anyone may find out my parents' first names.

As mentioned above, once someone has your maiden name (if you are female) and knows where your parents were married, well, it doesn't get much easier than that. If you are the oldest child in the family, that sets a marker for the time period in which one should search for your parent's marriage license, give or take a couple of years. Once they know your last name or maiden name... it all depends on other known data.

12. T/F Anyone may find out how much money I spent on my home.

True. Land records are very accessible. This is how title companies work with title insurance. They stroll down to the county courthouse and start searching. Land records are often available online, too. Now, let's jump down to question 14.

13. T/F Anyone may obtain my Social Security number.

Okay, now for #13. Doesn't everyone dread this question? How safe is your Social Security Number? Well, this depends on you and a whole lot of other people. Have you ever given blood and had then ask for your SSN? Have you ever had your SSN on your health insurance card? Have you ever tossed an old health insurance card in the garbage? Is your SSN on your Driver's License? Who sees it? Fact: The Red Cross does NOT need your SSN. Your SSN does NOT need to be on your insurance card. Your SSN does NOT have to be on your Driver's License.

Unfortunately, we are so used to handing it out, that we just do it without questioning why. You may request a different number be used to identify you on an ID card, and you may refuse to put your SSN on your license. SSN's should not be on identification cards in the first place, for everyone to see. Obviously these are needed for reporting income, financial purposes (credit, banking, etc.), and for employment. Obviously, there are a hundred other ways to get SSNs, but refusing to hand it out when unnecessary may help.

14. T/F Anyone may find out if I obtained a second mortgage.

Also true! Along with the land records are records of who technically owned the house and the purchase amount. This may be easily located again, either online or at the courthouse.

15. T/F Anyone may find out where I live.

There are numerous ways one may find this information.

16. T/F Anyone may find out how many children I have.

Someday I am going to write a book where a trio of criminals is gathered behind the minivan, one with a telescopic pointer in hand. "Okay, folks. Here's what we are dealing with here. We have a teenage boy who is in drumline," (points to the bumper sticker), "and a teenage girl who is a cheerleader." (points to another bumper sticker). "Next we have a dad and six other small children, two dogs, and a cat to contend with." (points to the family lineup of stick figures representing each family member and pet). "Since the football game is tonight, we know that the cheerleader, the drummer, and possibly the parents are out of the house, so that leaves us with a babysitter, the dogs, cat, and small children. Ready? BREAK!"

17. T/F Anyone may find out when I am out of town.

I am in awe at how vulnerable we make ourselves. I have watched teenage girls put details about themselves on MySpace for all to see, including where they lived, when the family was going out of town, etc., etc., and I shook my head in amazement. Again, this isn't about fear or paranoia, rather this is about common sense, folks. Carefully consider who you tell about your month long family vacation this year, and keep details vague, including when you will return. Then ask neighbors to watch your home, collect mail and newspapers, and perhaps stop by (if they are a trusted friend). Consider where you have advertised your absence (blogs, Facebook, or other social media), and avoid discussing those details until after you return.

18. T/F Anyone may find out where my children attend school.

See #16-17. If you are President Obama, everyone knows where your kids go to school already, but think before adding information about where your kids go to school. Keep in mind that children don't have the cognition to distinguish between friend and foe. If someone knows that child's name and what they look like, their birthday, as well as details about you, your name, your address, your pets names, it isn't hard to convince a child that they are close friends of the family. Take care when placing this type of information online and keep children safe and secure.

19. T/F Anyone may find out if I am a sex offender and where I live.

Both True and False. If you have never been charged with a sexual offense, it you will not appear on a sex offender registry. This is one reason why it is so important to prosecute sex offenders, otherwise they will move into neighborhoods under the radar. Sex offenders, like anyone else may change, and I believe people may change. That being said, there are tools available online for anyone to easily locate registered sex offenders living near their homes. This applies to the United States, and other countries may have more lax laws about sexual offenses. In summary, you may locate sex offenders living nearby IF they have been charged and thereafter are required to register with the National Sex Offender Registry every time they move. If there is no legal knowledge of their sexual offenses, they will not appear on the registry.

20. T/F Anyone may find out what grades I received in school.

While attending college, I had a family member who accessed my school records without my permission. I quickly changed the status of my privacy to prevent any further access. Check with your local educational institutions to ensure your privacy and read up on the privacy laws. Someone claiming to be a parent or spouse may be able to obtain this information if they know the correct things to say. The family member in question was not a parent or spouse, and yet claimed to be. When asked my SSN and mother's maiden name, this person had obtained this information and so had access to my school records. I changed my mother's maiden name on every record, including banking, school, etc.. With online family trees and other information readily available nowadays, it is just an extra step in the privacy security fortress.

21. T/F Anyone may read text messages I send.

All I have to say is:

22. T/F Anyone may read e-mails I send.

While attending college, I had ONE e-mail address (now I have many), and only corresponded to around five individuals. I had not given out my address to anyone else for any reason. One day, I wrote to a friend the following: "If I keep eating like this, I am going to get fat!" The following day, I started getting weight loss ads in my e-mail account. Any unencrypted e-mail sent is accessible and viewable. I avoid sending any information I would not like the world to see via e-mail or text messaging.

23. T/F Anyone may see what I am looking at on the Internet.

With Google now owning YouTube, Blogger, Google Chrome and Google Search Engine, it is very easy for them to customize ads to your specific area and interests. It's their job, and because I know what they are doing, I don't really mind, but it is good to be aware. For example, when I visit YouTube, my recommended videos are in the German language, or are on the subject of programming tutorials or cockatiels or conures. Google learns what I like and offers me what will interest me most. We love all of their free stuff, but keep in mind that there is always a price. Still, I love Blogger, Google Docs, Google Wave, Google Chrome, Google, Google Phone, YouTube and all of the other wonderful things Google dreams up. I would rather see cockatiels on YouTube than half-naked women any day.

I had a friend who lived in China, and the government carefully monitored the Internet with a fine tooth comb. While our government is much more free about these things, don't go searching for bomb ingredients any time soon online. The government of any country may see what you are looking at at any time, and may look for patterns or words in your searches. Also, consider that almost anything you put online is available for anyone to see. The Internet Archive (Wayback Machine) scans websites and makes them searchable by date at a later time. I have websites that are offline now, but still searchable and viewable via the Wayback Machine.

Additionally, just because you haven't given someone your Facebook address doesn't mean they can't find you. Information added on Facebook belongs to Facebook, unlike blogger. There is nothing to stop them from publishing that information in a book someday. Understand the licenses of the social media tools you use if privacy is important to you. I can't tell you how many times a director has tried to Google me at work. Inevitably, they don't find me, but nevertheless, I don't put things online that I don't want people to read. It's like trying to keep a secret while broadcasting it on TV. The person you just insulted will eventually see that insult, or read that rude comment and then, well, you know THE REST OF THE STORY.

One more note on Internet usage: Employers commonly monitor Internet usage and have a right to do so. They are able to see everything you see, even 30 second snapshots of your screen. They can record your passwords, e-mails, and anything else you do on your computer, including documents you write. There is nothing to stop them from doing this. The computers belong to them, as well as the Internet access. They may document every keystroke you make on a computer (see below), so be wise when writing that e-mail about how much you hate your boss or when slacking off by spending lots of time on your blog during worktime.

24. T/F Anyone may listen to my land-line phone conversations.

Phone tapping is not legal in normal circumstances. If the government has a justified reason to, there is a hotwire that may be placed temporarily on a cell phone to monitor conversations. Anything shared on cell phones MAY be monitored. This doesn't involve most of us, but land lines are not exempt from this type of monitoring either. In fact, because land lines are tied to a specific location, name, and address, this really makes it easier. Outside of government monitoring, there are many devices that allow one to record conversations.

You may have seen LiveScribe pens and similar devices. Yea, verily, that person wearing a phone headset while speaking to you could have someone else listening to your conversation. This is not a paranoia discussion here, just a reality check. I am an advocate of avoiding gossip, slander, and libel at any cost, and even try to speak, about others in such a way that if they were to overhear what I said, I would not mind it. I would be willing to say the same thing to that person's face. Without living your life in fear that someone is listening to what you are saying, just be aware that when it comes out of your mouth, or out of your pen, or out of your fingertips, it may grow feet and run away like a greased pig, never to be regained again.

25. T/F Anyone may videotape me without my consent.

Anyone may videotape or film you in a public setting, however, they may not include you as the feature or focus of that videotape or film without your consent. You will notice, for example that when newscasters are filming an overweight person for a special on obesity, they usually leave the face out so that the person is unidentifiable. Private property that is not open to the public is not filmable, especially when it violates privacy laws in certain rooms such as bedrooms, bathrooms, hotel rooms, etc.. Filming that interferes with emergency or legal services is also not allowed. Cameras have commonly been removed from in courthouses and jails as well. That being said, if you are in the grocery store parking lot with your boyfriend or girlfriend, smile, you are on camera!

As a fun little side note, if you are interested in learning more about devices that may monitor what you do, check out,

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