Nate Lenow had a simple mission: Find out all he could about "The Shadow." That's how the mysterious person signed his (her?) e-mail. All he had to go on was the e-mail address: email@example.com
Six hours later, the Memphis, Tenn., private investigator had built a 31-page dossier: name, occupation, birthplace, wife's name, her occupation, phone number, address, even a street map pinpointing their house. He knew how much the couple had paid for their house, when (approximately) they'd bought it, and from whom they'd purchased it. He had even tracked down where they used to attend church and the names of two of their pet birds.
"Your shadow is neon," he wrote in an e-mail to his quarry. And the next day, because he was showing off a little, he e-mailed again: "I forgot to ask yesterday how Ziggy and Sweet Pea were doing."
It was amazing someone could gather so much personal information about me. I had asked Mr. Lenow to investigate, pretending only to know my e-mail address. It's not an uncommon assignment. Corporations, worried about what's being said about them online, sometimes have people investigated, knowing only their e-mail address.
The scariest part about this assignment was that Lenow didn't delve into fancy databases or his private-eye tool kit. He only used the tools available to anybody: the Internet and another online service called CompuServe.
That's the biggest change cyberspace has wrought in the realm of privacy. Governments, corporations, and private eyes have always been able to dig up data on people, given enough time and resources. Now, thanks to the Internet, anybody can do it with a few hours and little or no money. (Lenow spent $10 investigating me.)
"The Net makes it very, very easy to accumulate knowledge," says Daniel Janal, author of a new book on Internet privacy called "Risky Business" (Wiley).
To prevent others from gathering too much data on you, he suggests you investigate yourself online. For example, type your name into various search engines, such as Lycos (www.lycos.com) and Excite (www.excite.com). To check your postings in Internet newsgroups, search Deja News (www.dejanews.com).
If your cybershadow lights up like neon, consider taking some information off your Web site or protecting it with a password. To get your name taken off various Internet directories, see author Michael Banks's Web site: w3.one.net/~banks/slpriv.htm