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Why personal secrets
are no more

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part serialization of Michael S. Hyatt’s blockbuster new expos?, “Invasion of Privacy: How to Protect Yourself in the Digital Age.” Look for part 2 tomorrow.

Amy Boyer was being tracked. The beautiful young girl was soon to graduate from college. Not yet 21, Amy was still living at home with her family, whom she loved greatly. She and her boyfriend were planning to purchase a home and begin the next stage of their life together. A hard worker, she held two part-time jobs while she attended school. With many friends and a loving family, she had no reason to think she had any enemies.

Liam Youens was a young man who had gone to school with Amy. From at least the 10th grade, he had been obsessed with her. Eventually, he began a Web page to chronicle the ways in which he watched her. He discussed how he planned to kill her, her family and then himself. But he had difficulty keeping tabs on Amy. He had dropped out of college after a year and was living at home, which afforded him limited use of a car. Amy often wasn’t home when he was driving by to spy on her – she was probably working – and Youens needed to find out where she was if he was going to carry out his plan.

He was able to find Amy because she was being tracked – just as we all are. Youens simply needed to know who could pull together the information available in public documents and elsewhere. Using the Internet, he paid for several public-record searches for personal information about Amy. He then obtained her Social Security number from Docusearch.com, a private investigation agency in Boca Raton, Fla. Finally, he paid $109 to get the address of Amy’s workplace.

At 4:30 p.m. Oct. 15, 1999, Amy left her job at a dental office. As she was getting into her car, Youens pulled up, jumped from his vehicle and fired 15 shots into her. Her injuries included a fatal head wound. Youens used the 16th bullet to shoot himself in the head.

Amy Boyer was unique in many ways, but her vulnerability was anything but atypical. There was nothing about her that made her especially easy to track. She had a Social Security number, just like you do. She lived in a society in which private investigation firms advertise over the Internet and perform investigations for customers they never meet, just like you do. Her place of employment and other details of her life were available to anyone who wanted to spend a few dollars, and the same is undoubtedly true of you. Amy was a victim precisely because it has become relatively cheap and easy for anyone to get the information necessary to track a person down. Her stalker found out everything he needed to know without her ever knowing she was the object of his study.

Amy’s tragic death has spurred some late, but important, discussion of the need for privacy in modern life. There has even been a bill proposed that would forbid companies from refusing services to someone who will not reveal his Social Security number. Another proposed bill would, as New York Times columnist William Safire points out, “[prohibit] individuals from ‘displaying to the public’ anybody’s Social Security number without consent.” But even that legislation would exempt the “information brokers” that gave Liam Youens the information he needed to find and kill Amy Boyer.

Although such efforts to protect privacy are a start, in truth they do not take into account the deep-rooted nature of the problem. For instance, even while the use of Social Security numbers has proved so dangerous, many states still prominently display them on their drivers licenses. We are coming closer and closer to living in the “panopticon” – a world of total surveillance.

In 1787, Jeremy Bentham, a British philosopher, made a proposal for prison architecture called a panopticon – (literally, “the all-seeing thing”). The idea behind the panopticon was that a prison would be most secure when the jailors watched the prisoners at all times. Since that was not possible, the next best solution was a structure where the guards could watch the prisoners at all times and where the prisoners never knew if they were being watched. That way, the prisoners would always behave appropriately.

Bentham never sold the British government on his plan, but he has proven to be something of a visionary nonetheless. Our society has become a sort of panopticon. It is all too easy to monitor someone without his knowing about it. We never know when the civil government, corporations or predators are watching us.

Unlike Bentham’s prison, which had only one set of watchers, we are now in a situation in which any number of people might be watching us in different ways and at different times. We are being tracked, or at least we can never know for sure that we’re not being tracked.

As tragic as Amy Boyer’s death is, it probably won’t be enough to galvanize the public. Why? Because even though stalking is a growing problem in our society, being killed by a troubled youth – certainly a terrifying possibility – is still not all that likely. The fact is, however, that there are many other ways in which we can be victims of the panopticon. Indeed, even after her death, Amy was a victim of yet another invasion of privacy. The August before she died, Amy’s pocketbook had been stolen, so she canceled her credit cards and checks, thinking that was the end of it. But two days after her death made the news in New England, the thieves, who had gotten her Social Security number, were able to assume her identity. They managed to spend $5,000 by using checks in her name.

Whether you realize it or not, you are being tracked, just as Amy Boyer was, and it can cost you time, money, freedom – even your life.

Tomorrow: Who’s tracking you?

Purchase Hyatt’s book, “Invasion of Privacy: How to Protect Yourself in the Digital Age.”