So you want privacy? Then forget everything your parents told you about being courteous to strangers. Private detectives are notorious for their smooth telephone manner, and they prey on people who volunteer information in the name of helpfulness. Says New York private investigator Terry Lasky, "You call up because maybe you'll get a friendly person. It happens all the time." College alumni offices pass on an address. Hospitals detail visits. There's a lesson there: Never, ever, conduct business with a caller.
The dark side of the information age demands we develop a keen sense of when to say, "That's none of your business." And resign yourself to the fact that in the privacy war, a delaying action is the best you can hope for.
"You're stuck in a system with records that reflect your life and your being," says Lasky. "You have a history that can be pieced together." Lasky, who specializes in locating witnesses and financial assets for law firms and insurance companies, makes a strong case that he can so easily put together a bio from publicly available data that he doesn't have to pass cash under the table. He says, "I've never paid a bribe. I've never paid an illegitimate source."
Lasky and other P.I.s do pay for lots of computer time, though. They're on-line with state motor-vehicle departments, tax assessors' property valuations, address info services derived from postal records, among other data bases. What's not available on-screen may enter a case file via a phone call or a visit to a town clerk's office or a vital-statistics registry. Even the Freedom of Information Act has been a boon to investigators.
Like every P.I., Lasky covets a legal look at the personal credit data collected by the nation's three big reporting outfits. When he has been able to subpoena the information for a case under litigation, he can probe a subject's finances all the way down through bank accounts and credit-card activity to checks and deposit slips. He warns individuals not to be sanguine about their financial privacy. When a person signs an application for a mortgage, credit card, auto or personal loan, he or she allows lenders' employees to tap into the financial data flow. All those taps make for leaks.
Novelist and privacy seeker Andrew Vachss claims an unpublished phone number isn't worth the trouble. Numbers are readily available for a price, he contends. Vachss advises getting a phone installed under an alias--and not revealing that name to anyone.
Vachss also suggests an extreme measure: Wangle plastic in an assumed name and pay the bill (the instrument is photographed by card companies) with a money order. The card's billing address will be a post-office box. What you gain in privacy you lose in airline miles.
There are other obsessive privacy seekers, and Lasky ticks off the price of the truly low profile: no credit cards, no telephone number, no registered ownership of a car or real estate. Earn and disburse only cash. Forget mail delivery or forwarding. Don't bother to vote, of course. Try to stay out of hospitals. Use only a nickname. Do not get into the newspapers. Finally, avoid dying. Death certificates are public records.