Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit www.bigleylaw.com
Last week, Clearancejobs.com contributor Marko Hakamaa gave us an illuminating view on the extent to which “data brokers” gather and sell consumer information. Most reasonable people would be appalled if they knew the amount of information being collected in their consumer profile. But the privacy invasion unfortunately doesn’t end there.
The newer and far more serious data threat – especially for security clearance holders – is what I like to term “the stalker website.” If you’ve ever tried Googling your name, chances are you know what I mean: the numerous websites offering to sell your personal information for the meager price of a few bucks. These websites – and there are dozens of them – claim to peddle your private information for legitimate purposes like “instant background checks,” or so that you can connect with long-lost family members. They conveniently omit the more sinister (and, I would argue, more common) uses like stalking, identity theft, social engineering, and intelligence targeting. Interestingly, they also omit the personal information of their founders from their databases. Nothing makes a point quite like hypocrisy.
To be clear, I believe that these websites present enough of a security threat that no one should have to have their personal information hijacked in such a manner. For security clearance holders, however, the threat is particularly real. It doesn’t take much thought to see how a criminal organization or foreign intelligence agency can track down a target’s home address and family members with ease. Such information is valuably exploitable when paired with government publications like agency telephone directories or organizational charts. But why pay human sources the big bucks for this information when you have Spokeo to do the work for $0.95? Looking for that long lost criminal history to use as blackmail? Just pony up an extra $39 and it’s yours – no questions asked.
Justifying your Privacy
If by this point you aren’t yet incensed enough, here is the real kicker: you generally have to provide a “good reason” why these websites should remove your information before they will consider taking action. Alternatively, some websites force you to register for an account (thereby providing them with even more information about you) before you can “claim your profile” and remove certain information. That’s right – they hijack your personal information, publish it online without your permission, and then demand that you follow their procedures to have it removed.
What I find particularly offensive is the arrogant dismissal of your personal privacy and security concerns these websites display. “It’s public records,” is the typical refrain – as if there is no difference between public records as this country traditionally knows them (i.e. at the local courthouse or records office) and the compilation of these records into creepy online databases. Who would have thought that one could develop a public safety threat and call it a “service?”
Getting Off the Lists
I’ve been writing and teaching about this issue for several years now, but with little traction. Those of you who have a security clearance (or, for that matter, any other reason why someone with bad intentions would want to locate you) should make removing your personal information from these websites a priority for the security of yourself and your family. Unfortunately, there are dozens of them out there and more continuing to pop up regularly. I can tell you from my own experience that it feels like “whack-a-mole,” but there aren’t currently any other options.
The only real solution to this problem is going to come from legislation on the federal level. I’m not quite sure where our elected leaders have been on this issue, but here is my proposal: a federal “Do Not List” list similar to the “Do Not Call” list. That means one central place where anyone can go to sign-up for the immediate and permanent removal of their personal information from these websites. I encourage readers to share this article on social media, start a conversation at the workplace, and even try contacting your representatives in Congress to demand action. Personal and national security are issues worth fighting for.
This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation.