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When firms know more about you than you remember about yourself

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POSTED September 16, 2017 1:16 a.m.

It stopped me in my tracks.
“What name is one you are familiar with?”
The screen listed letter choices A through D. One of them was the name of one of my brothers.
I clicked to the next security question.
“What address has a meaning for you?”
It unnerved me. One of the five choices was the street address for the home I grew up in as a kid in Lincoln.
I clicked again.
Now I was really uncomfortable.
“What model of car did you once own?
Again, five choices with only one being correct.
It may be 32 years late but welcome to 1985.
The three were security questions, the type you answer to make sure you are who you say you are when you access a website. Nothing creepy there, right? Wrong. I had never been on the website before. I was registering with a company that does the Bulletin’s payroll processing as they are going paperless meaning we wouldn’t be receiving the printed fake check saying what was directly deposited by a computer by the Bulletin’s bank into the computer where I bank. Instead, I would now be logging into a website to double check to make sure money I never saw that was paid to me using a piece of paper replacing that quaint archaic piece of paper known as a check was the right amount.
I vacillated between being aghast at what a firm I never did personal business with knew about me to being amazed at the security steps taken by a concern that processes my payroll check.
I am not naïve. I can Google my name and find a wealth of information about myself. It is, however, information that you could have run down before the Internet Age that was a matter of public records: My marital status. My age via birth records. Property I own or have owned hence my address. My phone number even though it is not in a published directory. The political party I’m registered as a member. Where I went to high school.
What was in the security questions was not public information.
An acquaintance noted they are the type of questions you are asked when you — and not a firm — initial a request for a credit application online. That shows you either how much I shun the Internet for any type of financial transactions or how I haven’t applied for a credit card or credit line since the Clinton Administration.
But here’s the rub. I get the address. I even get the car as both at one time were likely listed on a credit application allowing firms like Equifax could collect data like little acorns and squirrel them away in one place so secure that a big, bad tech wolf with a key board could feast on them. But my brother’s name?
I have never used him as a credit reference or had him co-sign anything. There’s only two ways that he could possibly be tied to me using “public” information. One way is through a big data search matching us through birth certificates via the names of our mother and father. The other is through a big data search of online obituaries where we would have been listed as survivors after the deaths of our mother and our older brother.
We’ve obviously have crossed the Rubicon. The ability of computer programs to search out every nook and cranny of the Internet universe not only has made public records regarding personal data extremely easy to access but it sucks up any footprint we leave. I do not have any personal social media sites. While that puts me probably in an extremely small group, clearly I am not immune from computer searches as bits and pieces of my life are floating around the World Wide Web.
Our antiquated laws and debate regarding privacy centered on the real fear that government becoming too invasive could rob us of our privacy and eventually our freedom. Today that’s quaint and wishful thinking. If you want proof, consider the TV spots Medicare is running. It is 2017 and they’ve just figured using a person’s full Social Security number on a Medicare card isn’t a good idea. Besides the fact Congress passed laws years ago preventing every private sector health insurance firm from doing that, Medicare’s computer system from the late 1990s is so nimble that they can’t start issuing new cards until 2018.
Meanwhile Google, Facebook, Alphabet, and countless other businesses have been allowed to open the door on a treasure trove of our personal information that they have designs on ultimately to add billions more to the billions they’ve already stashed away. They suck it all in with the speed and deadly efficiency as a room engulfed in fire takes in air when the door is opened.
The Equifax credit data breach is just the beginning.
The National Lampoon in 1972 recorded the song “Deteriorata” lampooning the prose known as “Desiderata” that was recorded on a 45 record in 1971 that reached No. 8 on the Billboard chart.
One memorable line of many in the National Lampoon version read, “Know yourself. If you need help, call the FBI.”
Today the FBI knows less about you than Facebook.
And that makes the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Larry Page et al the modern clones of J. Edgar Hoover.

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