Monday, October 13, 2008

Private eye Steve Rambam: Privacy is dead

Private investigator Steve Rambam has worked on a number of high-profile cases in his 25 year career, including tracking down Nazi war criminals in Canada. In a recent interview with Computerworld, Rambam discusses PallTech, his investigative database service with more than 25 billion records on U.S. citizens and businesses.

PallTech claims to have “ pretty much every American's name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, telephone number, personal relationships, businesses, motor vehicles, driver's licenses, bankruptcies, liens, judgments -- I could go on and on”

If the fact that PallTech has amassed this much specific information on almost every American isn’t troubling enough, there are two other disturbing issues raised in the interview. The first is the apparent lack of security or oversight of the sensitive data. When asked who has access to the data and how it is safeguarded, Rambam replies:

This is a database that's restricted to law enforcement, private investigators, security directors of companies and people who have a genuine need. … The most restrictive rule is my own personal ethics. In 20 years, we haven't had a single lawsuit or complaint.

The second troubling issue is how the data is being contributed:

The other thing is the mind-boggling level of self-contributed data. The average person now willingly puts on the Internet personal information about himself that 20 years ago people would hire an investigator to try and get. It's extraordinary. If you know how to use the Internet, 75% of an investigation can be conducted sitting in your pajamas.

Rambam feels that people have no reason to fear that PallTech will abuse their personal information, as they are “more accountable” than the US government: “You can sue us; you can subpoena us. You can hold us to task if we do something improper. Not so the U.S. government.”

Rambam is a proponent of public access to information, in order to prevent government abuse. In an earlier post, I mentioned David Brin’s book The Transparent Society , which discusses the illusion of privacy and advocates making most information available to everyone to ensure greater transparency and accountability.

Will information remain private and "secret", or are we on a path to making it open and public?

4 comments:

tara said...

i'm blown away by how...1995 Pallorium's website is. the ugly layout, the use of quotes, and animated gifs--yikes!

until i read your post i had never heard of this company, but am amazed at the personal data that they claim to have. it's freaky that dog the bounty hunter could obtain access to this service, and i cannot.

Sharon E. Herbert said...

Hi Tara,

Maybe the "retro" look of their website is to distract us from just how tech-savvy they are!

What I can't understand is that none of the articles I've read about PallTech's service question their right to collect, maintain and sell so much personal information.

karen said...

that is scary! I had never heard of him before either. This says he was arrested by the FBI at a confernce a few years ago for fraud
http://voices.washingtonpost.com/securityfix/2006/07/fbi_arrest_private_eye_speaker.html

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Pallorium's website is hideous, but the work they do is beautiful: finding missing kids, bringing Nazi war criminals to justice and so on. My firm hired them 4 years ago to find a missing witness and Rambam personally tracked the person to Germany and then to Jordan where he obtained the statement we badly needed.

Rambam's arrest at the NYC convention was due to an embarrassed federal prosecutor. Rambam discovered that a federal witness, Prince Franz Joseph von Habsburg Lothringen, was in fact not an Austrian Prince, but rather a former Detroit mental patient named Josef Meyers. The AUSA was fired and all charges against Rambam were thrown out less than 2 days later. (Watch the youtube video of Rambam's HOPE lecture for all of the details.) I saw Rambam last year, and he is still an Investigator.