What have they got on me?

In the summer of 1996 I presented a series on CBC Radio’s Island Morning program, produced by Ann Thurlow, called Consumed by Technology. I’ve managed to recover the audio of the episodes, along with the “show notes” and transcripts, from The Internet Archive and I’m posting each episode here for posterity.

This fourth episode of Consumed by Technology focused access to information; it aired on July 30, 1996. Karen Mair was the host.

It used to be that in rural communities on Prince Edward Island, the local telephone operator was the “central clearinghouse” for all types of information. If you wanted to know what the hymns were for church on Sunday, or whether Mrs. MacIsaac had given birth yet or what the price of apples at the general store was, you’d just pick up the phone and ask. The last rural telephone operator left service almost 20 years ago, but the idea of a “central clearinghouse” for information is still alive and well.

Show Notes

These are the original links that I released with the episode; each is a link to the Internet Archive’s cache of the site at the time.


INTRO: It used to be that in rural communities on Prince Edward Island, the local telephone operator was the “central clearinghouse” for all types of information. If you wanted to know what the hymns were for church on Sunday, or whether Mrs. MacIsaac had given birth yet or what the price of apples at the general store was, you’d just pick up the phone and ask.

The last rural telephone operator left service almost 20 years ago, but the idea of a “central clearinghouse” for information is still alive and well.

For another in the series “Consumed by Technology,” Peter Rukavina joins me now to talk about this, and to tell us what he found out when he asked the question “What have they got on me?”

QUESTION: So the operators are all gone, but their spirit lives on?

ANSWER: Well, perhaps a vague shadow of their spirit, a distant cousin, you might say…

As you suggested, in days gone by, rural telephone operators played a central role in community life as the chief “keepers of information. “

After telephones came along, pretty well anything important that had to be communicated had to pass through the local telephone exchange. This meant that the operators had a pretty good handle on everyone’s life and goings on, and so if you wanted to know something, there was a good chance the local operator would either know themselves, or could tell you who did. In their own way, they were pretty powerful people in their communities.

Today, telephone operators are gone, but what has lived on is the notion that having a central clearinghouse for information makes you a pretty powerful person.

In this “wired world,” the place that information gets stored — the clearinghouse — is not in the minds of telephone operators, but in databases in computers. And so today, it’s really the person with the fastest computers and the best databases that holds the most power.

Now with all of that in mind, I decided to set out to answer the question “What have they got on me?” I was curious to know how much information about me and my everyday life is sitting out there in the computers of the world, what it’s used for, and who can get access to it.

QUESTION: Well… what did you find out?

ANSWER: I started by sitting down with a piece of paper and listing out all of the businesses and organizations and governments that I knew had a file on me. I started with things like my driver’s license, my bank accounts, my Social Insurance Number, the credit bureau and continued on to things like the local video store, my Internet provider, and all of the magazines that I subscribe to. And on and on.

Now I don’t tend to get surprised about much when it comes to information and technology, but I must say that I was overwhelmed by the size of this list when I was done… in 10 or 15 minutes I came up with almost 50 places that had some sort of information about me in their files. And those were just the places I knew about.

Once I had this long list in hand, I decided to zero in on a couple of the items, make some phone calls, and see what more I could find out about exactly how and what was being recorded about me.

I started with my driver’s license, which I figured was a good place to start because it has a reputation as being a sort of “universal card” — people ask for it when you want to rent cars or videos or sign up for a cheque cashing card at the grocery store.

I assumed that if someone had my driver’s license number they could just phone the driver’s license people in the government and find out where I lived and what kind of car I owned and whether I’d run over anybody lately.

QUESTION: And were you right?

Well, actually, no.

Much to my surprise, when I talked to the Highway Safety people in the Department of Transportation and Public Works I was told that driver’s license information is absolutely, positively confidential.

The only people who could get at it were them, me, and the police. I asked them why, if this was the case, people still asked for my driver’s license number when I signed up for things that had nothing to do with driving.

They had no idea. If it was useful to others, they said, it certainly wasn’t because of anything they were doing.

Now, as I said, this all came as something of a surprise to me; I’d always thought driver’s license information was public.

And then I found out why I’d always thought this.

Being an Ontario boy, I got on the phone to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. I never actually did get to talk to a real live person, but I was told by the talking computer that answered the phone that if I sent them $12.00 and an Ontario driver’s license number, they would send me what they call a “Driver Record Search,” which lists the name and address and three years worth of accident and speeding ticket information for the person with that license.

And if I lived in Ontario, I could do the same thing simply by walking up to something called a “Service Ontario” machine where I could slip in my credit card, and get the goods on as many people as I could afford.

QUESTION: They’re obviously a little more liberal with their information in Ontario… what about closer to home in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia?

ANSWER: Again, it seems to depend on where you are.

The person I talked to at the Nova Scotia Department of Consumer Services gave me pretty much the same answer as I got from Prince Edward Island: driver’s license information is not public. They seemed shocked that I would even ask.

In New Brunswick, however, the Motor Vehicles Branch told me that if I sent $8.00 to their office in Fredericton, I could get the driver record of any New Brunswick driver and I wouldn’t even need their driver’s license number, just their name.

I was curious to see what the American take on driver’s license information was, so I headed out on the Internet so see what I could find out.

I did a search for the phrase “obtain driver’s license information” and, wouldn’t you know, that first thing that popped up was an business calling itself the “Internet Department of Motor Vehicles.”

Just by filling out a form right there online, giving them a state and a name, for some states a driver’s license number, and my credit card number, for $20.00 they would email or fax me back any driver record, for any driver, anywhere in the United States.

QUESTION: So it seems that we might be ahead of the pack here on the Island when it comes to protecting people’s privacy…

ANSWER: Well of course some people would suggest that we’re actually behind the pack… again, it depends on who you talk to.

In fact that brings up one of the Big Issues that surround keeping information about people on file, and that’s the question of who owns the information. Is, for example, my driver’s license file my property or the government’s?

Now you might think that someone having access to your driver’s license file isn’t such a big deal.

But what if that someone is an insurance company that turns you down because you got into an accident 5 years ago that wasn’t really your fault.

Or a local car dealer who just happens to have a deal on the latest model of the car you’re driving now — in your colour!

The point is that it’s hard to foresee what others might do with information about you.

The situation becomes somewhat more complicated if you start looking at the issue not just of one government database or another being public, but the potential power of several of those databases combined.

This is really where the telephone operators got their power: not from just knowing that Mr. Jones wasn’t at home on Sunday night because he wasn’t there to accept a long distance call, but also knowing that he used to be married to a mysterious woman from Toronto, a woman reported to be seen in Charlottetown on Sunday morning.

Computer people call this “the power of systems integration.”

QUESTION: So it’s not knowing all the little bits of information as much as having them all collected together…

ANSWER: Exactly.

Now if I continue down my list and just look at the branches of government who have files on me, I see Revenue Canada with a complete record of what I earn and what I spend in my business, the Passport Office with a record of my comings and goings in and out of the country, the Customs Office with information on what packages I’ve received from outside the country.

The Department of the Environment knows what size my septic tank is, the Land Office knows what my house is worth. If I owned a dog, I’d need a license and that a record of that license would be in somebody’s computer.

Now although I don’t really consider it anyone’s business but my own whether I own a dog or not, or what the size of my septic tank is, I’m not too concerned that information like that “gets out.”

Imagine, however, if all of these databases were, effectively, “One Big Database.” What if it was possible to go up to a machine in the mall, slip in a credit card, and for 10 or 15 bucks find out everything that government knows about any person: where they live, how long they’ve been there, what they earn, who they’re married to… whatever.

Now I should hasten to add that this is, in fact, not the case at least right now.

There isn’t, at least yet, “One Big Database” of government information and, in fact, government’s have been quite strict about how they share their information with other governments. But the potential is certainly there for this sharing to happen.

Take the example in Ontario where the provincial government is trying to get access to federal government files to help them track down people not making child support payments.

This is another one of those instances where the basic issues themselves aren’t really that new — governments have been keeping track of us for years — but the power that computers bring to the task of collating and sorting and distributing this information changes the dynamic of the issue so much that we all have be a little more vigilant about keeping an eye on what governments are doing with information about us because they can do so much more now than ever before.

QUESTION: Now that’s government information, what about information that businesses keep on file about us?

ANSWER: I’m reminded of a call that my friend Leslie Niblett got when she was living in El Paso, Texas for a time. A woman from Houston whose name was also Leslie Niblett phoned her up, out of the blue, one day in the midst of a hunt for the Leslie Niblett that was making her life hell.

It seems that some other n’er-do-well Leslie Niblett in Texas had skipped out on making their JC Penny Department Store card payments and that this fact had been incorrectly noted on the Houston Leslie Niblett’s credit file. She was now trying to buy a house, and was being turned down for a mortgage because of this. Her only solution was to call every Leslie Niblett in Texas until she found the one who was making her life so difficult. Lord knows if she ever did find her, and even if she did, what she could have said…

I’ll be back next week to talk about how this could have happened, how it could happen to you, and generally about how businesses can use the information they have about us to sell more stuff.

EXTRO: Peter Rukavina operates Digital Island in Kingston, PEI… he’ll be back next week with another in the series “Consumed by Technology.”