* Spies R Us – A Search For Information (And Misinformation) On The Internet

Do you ever get the feeling that somebody is watching you? Or following you? Or out to get you? Well, it’s not paranoia if it’s true. But is it true?

By Erik J. Heels

First published 5/1/1999; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

In this month’s column, I’ve set out on a search for information and misinformation on the Internet.


My quest started out innocently enough. I wanted to find agents that would e-mail me information based on criteria I defined. For example, I might want to search for all instances of my company’s stock symbol and have articles mentioning that symbol e-mailed to me.

Many in the legal profession are familiar with Lexis-Nexis (http://www.lexis.com/) and their Eclipse service. Andy many of Lexis’s services are now available on the Internet. But are there alternatives? A list of agents – or “personalized news” services – can be found on Yahoo (http://dir.yahoo.com/…). In addition to the free Web-based news services, such as My Yahoo (http://my.yahoo.com/) and the like, I found four e-mail-based news services.

Ranked by number of news sources, the top four agents I found were NewsEdge (http://www.newsedge.com/) with over 2000 sources, Scoop (http://www.scoop.com/) with about 1600 sources, Inquisit (http://www.inquisit.com/) with 350 sources, and NewsHound (http://www.newshound.com/) with approximately 300 sources. Of those four, only Inquisit conspicuously offered a free trial. Plus it had the catchiest trademark: “A CIA For The Rest of Us.” So I signed up for Inquisit’s free trial.

Inquisit allows users to create an agent in five simple steps. The Inquisit agent will then search its database of 350 news sources and e-mail a summary and a pointer to a web page containing the complete article. News sources include the Associated Press (AP), Business Wire, Internet Week, PR Newswire, Reuters North American Business Report, U.S. News & World Report, and United Press International (UPI). Plus a whole host of second-tier newspapers and vertical publications that I’d never heard of.

Subscription prices range from 6 months for $69.95 to 2 years for $249.95. Setup was a breeze. You can select to have information mailed to you at particular days and time or “as it happens.” I selected “as it happens” and received dozens of e-mail messages. In hindsight, I should have asked for daily or weekly summaries to minimize the amount of e-mail in my inbox, but if you really need the information right away, “as it happens” is a good option.

And although the number of news sources may not bet he best measure of the potential usefulness of these new services, it is one useful measure. But you should also consider the quality of the data sources. For example, Inquisit doesn’t appear to have any top-tier newspapers, but it does search the wire services.

NewsHound (http://www.newshound.com/) from Knight Ridder, provides searches from approximately 300 sources: newspapers and domestic and international wire services. If all you need to search are newspapers and wire services, NewsHound may be a good choice. Scoop (http://www.scoop.com/) has about 1600 sources, including several law-related publications (e.g. ABA Banking Journal, Yale Law Journal, Practical Lawyer) and first-tier newspapers such as The Boston Globe, The Times of London, and The Washington Post. NewsEdge (http://www.newsedge.com/) delivers news in a variety of formats from over 2000 sources. Although if the sources were identified on their website, I didn’t find them. Their “information providers” page was “coming soon” (http://www.newsedge.com/alliances/ip/index.htm).

The Lighter Side of Spying

And if you want to do more than simply spy by reading, consider your alternatives on the lighter side of spying.

The WebCrawler Search Voyeur (http://webcrawler.com/SearchTicker.html) lets you view, in real time, searches terms that people are entering on WebCrawler (which is now owned by Excite). WebCrawler’s Search Voyeur page states “Excite cannot control the occasional appearance of terms which may be offensive to some people. If you are concerned about viewing potentially offensive material, we suggest you do not view the Search Voyeur.” So beware of real-time random spying. However, as a diversion, the WebCrawler Search Voyeur is almost as interesting as repeatedly selecting Yahoo Random (http://random.yahoo.com/bin/ryl) to see where it takes you!

Or take the plunge from text to pictures. At Random Internet Cameras (http://www.xmission.com/~bill/randcamera.html), you can browse through a list of sites that display images from cameras all over the world. So you can checkout downtown views from Boston (http://www.document.com/cam/now.html) to San Francisco (http://www.kpix.com/live/).

T@p Online’s Spy Cams (http://www.spy-cams.com/) site highlights a new web camera every day. On the day I visited, you could view the train listing monitor from New York’s Penn Station. I browsed for a while and found a Cat Cam, Dog Cam, and Lion Cam, among others.

Spying on Yourself

As my spying continued, I wondered how much personal information, such as unlisted phone numbers and credit reports, I could find on the information. The good news is that you need to know a lot about somebody to find out more about them, so it ended up being easier to spy on myself rather than on others.

See Yahoo’s directory of investigative services (http://dir.yahoo.com/…) for companies that will help you find out information about individuals, whether you’re interested in the information for personal or professional reasons.

Discreet Research (http://www.discreetresearch.com/) is one of several companies listed in Yahoo’s director that allows you to search for phone, employment, credit, and criminal history information based on a variety of criteria. For example, for $59, you can get an name and address from a phone number (a so-called “reverse lookup”). For $69, you can get phone numbers from names and addresses. Companies like Informus (http://www.informus.com/) provides employment screening information on individuals, but there is a lengthy application process.

I have an unlisted home phone number, and armed only with my web browser and credit card, I tried to find a site that would let me find my own unlisted number in real time. I’m not sure what I expected to find. Rumors about private information on the Internet appear daily online and in print. But try as I might, I could not find my unlisted phone number online. I certainly found investigative service companies that would do this sort of search for me. Even found several that specialized in unlisted phone numbers. In general, none of the investigative services appear to provide information in real time. At best, I was promised a one to three day turnaround.

If I were not concerned about keeping my research on the up-and-up, I could have resorted to some of the creative (i.e. shady) methods for finding unlisted phone numbers described in publications such as “The Anarchist’s Cookbook.” Caveat emptor. In short, I was unable to find any site, free or fee-based, that allowed me to instantly search for unlisted phone numbers. I guess I was relieved to discover that I failed to find my own unlisted phone number.

I was, however, able to purchase my own credit report online. Yahoo Finance (http://loan.yahoo.com/c/) allowed me to get my own credit report in 30 seconds for eight dollars.

And I had to enter a great deal of information specific to me (including current credit card numbers), so I’m not overly concerned about other people being able to use this service to search for my credit information. And yes, it only took 30 seconds (I timed it). Plus, I found a few errors that I’ll soon be correcting.

Correcting Errors

While there are laws that allow consumer to correct, for example, faulty information in a credit report, correcting misinformation on the Internet is a tad bit more challenging. In most cases, we have to rely on the kindness of the publishers to provide us with some method of correcting the errors.

For example, Yahoo People Search (http://people.yahoo.com/) and related services allow users to easily and quickly find your e-mail addresses and phone number. If your information is incorrect or outdated – or if you have privacy concerns – you can fill out a form (http://help.yahoo.com/help/yps/yps-06.html) to have the information corrected. I used the form to remove six outdated e-mail addresses (plus one erroneous one). However, a week after submitting the corrections, the erroneous entries are still included in Yahoo People Search.

The InterNIC’s domain name database (http://www.internic.net/) is, unfortunately, another huge source of misinformation. If you have ever been an administrative, technical, or billing contact for a registered domain name, than you probably have a “handle” in the InterNIC database. Just like CB radio junkies use a handle to uniquely identify themselves, domain name records include handles to uniquely identify themselves. Personal information of your domain’s contact is included in this handle. For example, the handle for the heels-dot-com domain is “EH1038.” But if you search for the details of that handle (http://rs.internic.net/cgi-bin/whois?EH1038), you’ll retrieve my old (Marlboro, MA) mailing address.

It is theoretically possible to try to correct misinformation (via forms at http://rs.internic.net/help/domain/mod-domain-reg.html) in the InterNIC’s database, but the most urgent mistakes are often the most difficult to correct. For example, if you change the name of your company (in my case, I changed from “Erik J. Heels Law Offices” to “Law Offices of Erik J. Heels”), the InterNIC treats this as a change in ownership, and you have to send them your firstborn child to effect the change. Well, almost. But if your firm has merged with another firm, or sold a domain name, expect challenges when you try to update your InterNIC information. I suggest that firms periodically review their domain name information for accuracy. Misspelled company names are common (see, for example, http://www.redstreet.com/content/reviews_faq.html), especially if the domain name was registered by an Internet service provider of consultant who was less than careful about making sure that the LLCs, PCs, commas, and ampersands are all in the right place. Since I started writing this column, I have been able to remove a couple of the incorrect handles from the InterNIC database, but a couple more persist.

Doctor, Doctor, It Hurts When I Do This (So Don’t Do That)

A related issue is when another organization registers a domain name similar to yours. This is a more difficult problem to solve. For example, Amazon.Com (http://www.amazon.com/) has seen similar domain names registered by competitors (http://www.amazoM.com/, http://www.amazo.com/) and adult-oriented sites (http://www.aNazon.com/). The White House (http://www.whitehouse.gov/) and The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/) have also fallen prey to the similar problems (http://www.whitehouse.com/ and http://www.nytime.com/).

The issues also exists in the legal community. In Florida, two law firms with similar names have registered similar domain names. fowlerwhite.com and fowler-white.com are two different firms. The firm Fowler, White, Gillen, Boggs, Villareal and Banker, based in Tampa, FL, is an NLJ 250 law firm, and its “fowlerwhite.com” domain name has been registered since 09/21/96. The firm Fowler, White, Burnett, Hurley, Banick & Strickroot, PA, based in Miami, FL, is not an NLJ 250 law firm, and its “fowler-white.com” domain name has been registered since 09/24/96. As another example, consider how many times people misspell “lawyer” as “laywer.” A search of Alta Vista returns nearly 1000 pages with the misspelled “laywer” (http://www.altavista.com/…). If your domain name includes the word “lawyer,” you should consider registering the “laywer” version of the domain name as well. In fact, you should register all of the common misspelling of your domain name. But as long as Netscape continues to default to “.com” domains (so that when you enter “heels” in the “location” window, the “http://www.” Is pre-pended and the “.com/” is appended), there is no reason to register the other top-level domain names (.net, .org, etc.). The reverse is obviously not true. I’m guessing that The White House wishes it had registered whitehouse.com. In the case of misspelled domain names, your best defense is a good offense. If your complaint is “Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do this,” then the remedy is “Don’t do that.”

The Spy Who Surfed In From The Cold

As the amount of information available on the Internet continues to increase, more services will emerge to enable people to cope with the information – and misinformation. Web-based personalized news services such as My Yahoo have already begun to meet the need for more relevant personalized information. And e-mail-based agents such as Inquisit can complement Web-based services. But as the Internet continues to play a vital part in our day-to-day personal and business lives, legislation may be needed to allow individuals to correct misinformation on the Internet, just as consumer-protection legislation allows them to correct errors in their credit reports. Fortunately, the Internet is an excellent medium for communication, and companies that publish misinformation or give the impression that they may be violating privacy rights are usually quickly and publicly pointed out by the Internet community (see, for example, http://www.bigbrotherinside.com/, and anti-Intel Pentium III site). And when the InterNIC loses is monopoly on domain name registration this spring, I expect it to get easier to correct domain name misinformation. There’s nothing like competition (or, bad press) to make companies change their ways!

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