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Jan 26, 2005 | 23:30 GMT

4 mins read

Keeping Private Information Private

Hugs for Puppies, a Philadelphia-based activist group affiliated with Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty (SHAC), released personal information through subscriber e-mail Jan. 22 about an executive at Teva Pharmaceuticals, a client of Huntington Life Sciences.

The revealed information includes the executive's home address, both his and his wife's alma maters, cell phone and home telephone numbers for both of them, where their children attend school and the children's extracurricular activities.

The public release of personal information concerning those targeted for activism is part and parcel of a strategy employed by SHAC in an attempt to interfere with Huntington Life Sciences operations. Because the tactic has proven effective, STRATFOR expects it to be adopted by other activist groups in the coming years.

The Internet has become a virtual treasure trove of personal data, and that information is available to anyone with the motivation to collect it. Not only activist groups such as SHAC, but also any run-of-the-mill stalker or identity thief can access enormous amounts of private data from the Internet. Once this information gets out to militant activists, it becomes a genuine threat to personal safety. Although high visibility executives and other top officials face the highest risk that their information will be used to target them, the fact is that it can happen to anyone.

There are a number of ways to protect against the release of personal/public record information. One of the most obvious is to purchase property through the use of a trust or limited liability corporation to ensure personal information is removed from deeds and public tax records, since many counties and cities maintain Internet-accessible tax records. Another method is to use post office boxes or the address of an attorney on public documents (such as driver's licenses and vehicle registrations) to ensure that one's address is not on easily accessible public documents. Given the war on terrorism and related concerns about document fraud, this practice likely will be outlawed in the near future, but for now it is a good way to partially ensure one's privacy. It also is vital to avoid using home addresses on corporate records and Securities and Exchange Commission filings when at all possible Beyond these methods, employing simple common sense will go a long way toward protecting sensitive information. Flaunting personal information on Web sites or Weblogs, for example, is a sure way to aid data snatchers. Even third-party mentions of a person can be used to piece together a snapshot. An Internet search of nearly anyone will turn up some mention of him or her. From there, it is possible to piece together information on the person's job, where he or she attended school and eventually — by working backward — to construct a current profile of the targeted individual. Hugs For Puppies, for example, lists the contact information for the alumni association of the high school the targeted executive's wife attended. At first glance, this information might seem innocuous, but a savvy stalker or activist could use it to draw out a more detailed sketch of the target. Furthermore, a developing cottage industry offers fast and affordable searches of public records through companies such as publicdata.com and ussearch.com. Services such as these, along with the proliferation of personal information on social and alumni Web sites and in the guest books of myriad other sites, make it that much easier to exploit personal information. Permission to publish personal information on a social or civic club's Web site should be given cautiously and with the full awareness that, once the information is out there, it is impossible to retract. Employees and associates can be another potential source of personal information leaks. SHAC, for instance, routinely publishes internal company documents and the e-mails of those companies associated with Huntington Life Sciences. Some of this information could be acquired through hacking (or dumpster diving, if the company does not shred documents), but more than likely it is obtained through the carelessness or collusion of an employee. Personal information about individuals and their families, and perhaps even their social life, can be leaked the same way. It is impossible to safeguard all personal information, but using common sense could go a long way toward keeping private information private — and mitigating any potential threat posed by its public airing.

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