BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Two weeks ago, computer junkies from around the world descended on midtown Manhattan for the Fifth HOPE Convention. That stands for Hackers on Planet Earth. Punching away at laptop keyboards, they got inspiration, advice, and yes, hacking tips in workshops with titles like How to Break Anonymity Networks. Steven Rambam is a private investigator who makes heavy use of online databases to earn his living. He spoke at the HOPE Convention, and he joins me now. Steven, welcome to On the Media.
STEVEN RAMBAM: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, you gave a talk at the hackers' convention titled "Privacy Is Dead -- Get Over It." First off, how and when did privacy die, and why should I get over it? I like my privacy.
STEVEN RAMBAM: Well, privacy died some time in the early '80s when everything in the world of information that was newly-created or re-compiled began to be put into databases, and once that started, that information never went away. There is nothing in your day to day life that occurs that is not catalogued.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, who generates these databases and, and how do they find these things out?
STEVEN RAMBAM: These are not governmental, big-brother databases. These are databases compiled rather by, let's say "little cousin," [LAUGHTER] every type of private industry that feels that they have a need to catalog this sort of information on you -- and most of them do have a legitimate need.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, we know that government has restrictions on the way that it can compile and use data, but there aren't similar restrictions on business.
STEVEN RAMBAM: Unfortunately, the government is using these lack of restrictions on private industry to do an end run around everything from congressional oversight to the Freedom of Information Act to privacy restrictions that have been enacted into law to prevent the government from compiling these databases. What the government does is it pays private industry to compile these databases -- what you buy in stores, what you read, what your political affiliations are, what your finances are, where you travel, what you drive. It then accesses these databases, which are at that point considered private databases, and when people ask to regulate them, the same governmental agency that pays for them and uses them says, sorry - they're private databases -- we can't control them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How is the government allowed to do that? Is it because it isn't doing it itself, but paying a third party?
STEVEN RAMBAM: That's correct. This is the most cynical avoidance I've ever seen of oversight and regulation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven, you are totally creeping me out. [LAUGHS]
STEVEN RAMBAM: Even more frightening is that, if you go in the internet and you type in "cellular telephone bills" into Google, you will find dozens of people offering to sell you someone's cellular telephone bills -- openly, on the internet. And by the way, it is at best a misdemeanor to do so. In most cases a felony. And nobody's shutting these guys down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. I hope I don't regret this: [LAUGHTER] one day ago--
STEVEN RAMBAM: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: -- one of my producers gave you my name --just my name -- and no money - and told you to dig up some information on me -- so, what did you find?
STEVEN RAMBAM: Oh, my gosh. First of all, you actually live not that far from me. [LAUGHTER] In Brooklyn. Should I read off your Social Security number?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: No, definitely not.
STEVEN RAMBAM: As far as your house goes, your deed, your mortgage, the power of attorney that your husband signed over to you when you bought the house in '95--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow.
STEVEN RAMBAM: -- the name of the gentleman that you bought the home from -- he was apparently some sort of official of the Saint Charbel Marronite Catholic Church. Should I say how much you paid for your home?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nah. [LAUGHS]
STEVEN RAMBAM: Nah. The only thing that caused me a little problem is I was trying to figure out who Stacy was, but I figured out she's not your daughter, because the date of birth is so close -- it must be your sister?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah.
STEVEN RAMBAM: Okay. I have your addresses in Cathedral City, California, Washington DC, Stamford, Brooklyn, another one in Washington, Palo Alto--; I do know that you lived in Russia. I, I mean obviously we didn't have much chance to do an investigation. I slapped this together in about 10 minutes this morning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow. If we'd given you a week or two, what else could you have found?
STEVEN RAMBAM: We would have gotten your credit card bills; we would have gotten your phone bills. We would have gone back at least six months. We would have found out everything you bought to read, everything you bought to eat, if you use your credit card. Everywhere you traveled. Everyone you spoke to on the phone. We would have found out where you vote, who you voted for, with some reasonable degree of certainty. Your affiliation is recorded in New York. About two thirds of what I just mentioned would be unequivocally illegal if I didn't receive your release, but nevertheless it's done every day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Steven, thank you very much.
STEVEN RAMBAM: You're very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And by the way, Steven--?
STEVEN RAMBAM: Yup?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Consider that release to investigate me lapsed.
STEVEN RAMBAM: Ahhhh-- not a problem. [LAUGHTER] I do have a shredder.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steven Rambam is a private investigator.