Searching the Deep Web

Last year, the State Library of Ohio offered a one-day workshop about online research resources easily available to any Ohioan with a modem.  For me, this was like giving a teenager a wheelbarrow full of arcade tokens.  Pre-Internet, I often read reference books for fun, and having literally thousands of resources a mere mouse-click away was the dawning of a new world.  I can spend entire evenings doing nothing but going from one site to another typing in queries that sprang from nowhere.

I doubt many of you loyal readers would share my enthusiasm.  Understand, however, that I am the person who was ecstatic when he bought an Oxford English Dictionary for $1.00 at a church flea market.  In Athens, I used the last $10 in my wallet to buy a complete set of the 1947 Encyclopaedia Brittanica, and was touched when one of the book jockeys let me borrow a cart to haul my new treasure the quarter mile downhill to my room on New South Green.  (At that time, the library carts at Alden Library were named after American warships.  I think they let me use the USS Vincennes.)

This week, while trying to find the whereabouts of an old co-worker, I discovered Pipl.com.  I spent the next several hours typing in the names of neighbors, people I was in LRY with (Liberal Religious Youth, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s national youth group from 1954 until 1982), and classmates from kindergarten through college.  It wasn’t because of pure research, or burning desires to reconnect.  I’m nosy, end of statement.

I lost track of how many times I typed http://www.pipl.com in the last 24 hours, but I have had a “morning after” feeling about it today, even as I keep looking people up as I think of them.

I am doing it out of nosiness.  In several cases, I have been deeply saddened by what I’ve discovered.  A close friend of my Cincinnati years, very intelligent and personable, has been in and out of the legal system there for the last decade for offenses ranging from DWI to burglary.  I knew he saw a counselor often, and took antidepressants, but I was saddened to see what had happened to him.  I thought of the bitter irony in his pleading not guilty by reason of insanity to at least one of the charges.

This site (and others like it) trouble me as well.  They are a stalker’s dream come true.  Anyone who has made significant mistakes in the past should pray day and night that a potential employer doesn’t get curious and decide to consult these databases.  If the employer doesn’t check, there’s always the possible that a vengeful ex-spouse or -crime partner would use it for blackmail.  (One site, ZabaSearch, makes no pretense of merely helping people reunite with scattered relatives.  Next to the information, you click a link marked GET THE DIRT!)

This is my dilemma about the Sex Offenders’ Registry.  My hatred of pedophiles and child abusers borders on the pathological, based almost entirely on my own background as a survivor.  When we lived in Franklinton, it seemed that notices about registered sex offenders living in our area arrived in our mailbox every 10 days, on average.  I was not happy about their living so close to my elementary school-aged daughter, but neither was I headed over to their houses with a can of gasoline and a torch.

Seeing Registered Sex Offender at the top of one of one of the notices is such a red flag that few people bother to read the information about the person’s offense.  If the person is a pedophile, I want him nowhere near my house, daughter, or family.  Even a charge like “indecent exposure” is vague.  The person’s offense could have truly horrible, like exposing himself to schoolchildren.  It could also mean that he or she had participated in a Naked Mile-type event in college, and he had been in a place where the police and courts were less tolerant than their counterparts elsewhere.  It could even be something as innocuous and harmless as public urination.  (And if that was strictly enforced, about half of Red, White, and Boom!’s attendees, and two thirds of Comfest’s, would be on the Registry.)

One of my faults character traits is a strong tendency toward Schadenfreude–taking pleasure in others’ misfortunes, especially those of people who have wronged or hurt me.  I’ve found that searching on Pipl.com has encouraged this, especially when I focus on former school bullies or former friends with whom I have fallen out acrimoniously.  When I found out that a high school adversary, a guy who always shouted, “Faggot!” and “Loser!” at me whenever we crossed paths, was in prison for raping two teenage boys, it was one of those times when you’re willing to think that the Universe does have a driving sense of justice.

There is a flip side of that.  I wanted to re-establish contact with a couple I knew in Cincinnati.  When I lived there, they were so much in love that they seemed joined at the lips, and they were starry-eyed about their future and the family they planned to have.  I used Pipl.com to find their address, and also to find the date of their marriage, so I could send an anniversary card.  My jaw dropped when I learned they had divorced, very acrimoniously, soon after the birth of their child.  The divorce involved many accusations of mental (and physical) cruelty, alcohol abuse, adultery, and abandonment.

I checked my own name, naturally.  I saw a short paragraph in Reader’s Digest once that said that when given a pen to try, 94% (thereabouts) of all people will sign their name.  The same is true with a search engine like this.  A minor Christian self-help guru wrote a book in the ’80s called What You Think of Me is None of My Business, which is definitely not something I believe.

I was a bit disappointed at the paucity of records.  It listed my Facebook page, the URLs to my blogs (here and on LiveJournal), my job at the Industrial Commission, and my Classmates.com, and some questions I’d asked on Usenet groups years ago when we had our first Internet account.

Amazing, too, was what didn’t appear.  There was no record of my night in the Athens County Jail for public intoxication, although, as a minor misdemeanor, it may have been expunged.  Also, Athens County Municipal Court’s online records only go back as far as 1992.  Other than my Classmates.com entry about being at Ohio University, no objective records of my life in Athens popped up.

The same was true of the 18 months I lived in Boston.  This was due, I think, to the fact that I never signed a lease or had utilities in my name.  I either sublet, couch-surfed (it would be an anachronism to use the term Kato Kaelining for the early 1980s), or lived at the YMCA.  Pipl.com would not have access to The Crimson‘s payroll records.

When I applied for a job at the main post office in Cincinnati, I knew there would be a background check.  This worried me, even during my first weeks on the job and two years later, when I left the USPS to work for the Internal Revenue Service in Kentucky.  When I was 18, I registered for the draft, very much under protest.  When Selective Service’s letter came back acknowledging my registration, I sat down at the typewriter and wrote them a respectfully worded letter.  In it, I politely informed them that were I to be drafted, I would give classified information to the USSR and Iran whenever the chance arose.  (I realize now that, at 18, I worried for no reason.  My draft classification would have been in the “If the Soviet Army is about to kick in the Oval Office door, we might consider drafting you” range.)  Fueled by Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” I did not make Selective Service’s job easy.  I sent in a change-of-address card from Boston, listing my new residence as 600 Plympton St. in Cambridge, an address which is somewhere in the middle of the Charles River.  While back to Marietta during Harvard’s spring break, a letter from Selective Service arrived.  I never opened it, merely drew an arrow to my name, wrote DECEASED — RETURN TO SENDER on the front of it, and dropped it in the mailbox.

Would these ghosts from my past rise up when the Human Resources Department did its check?  As it turned out, the answer was no.  It makes me question just how thorough government background checks and/or record-keeping really are.

My favorite current TV show is Criminal Minds, and Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia always makes me chuckle.  However, it makes me uneasy when the BAU searches for a suspect, or a missing person, and Garcia clicks away at one (or more than one) computer keyboard at manic speed, watches the monitors come to life around her, and can tell the agents that yes, their missing person had lived at that address until he was evicted, he was employed at the local market until he was fired for coming to work drunk, he last made a call on his cell phone yesterday to a motel in the next town, and he seems to enjoy collecting antique adding machines (based on his eBay purchases and credit card records from antique shows).

Right to privacy rings in the back of my head like a litany.  On Law and Order, District Attorney Arthur Branch (played by former Senator Fred Dalton Thompson (R-Tenn.)) says that he opposes Roe v. Wade.  He doesn’t oppose it on moral or religious grounds, but because it is “judicial hocus-pocus.”  It is based “on a legal fiction, better known as the right to privacy.”  I can, take a leisurely approach to this, since my record and my past don’t hold much that could do more than embarrass me.  I can say, “Follow me around, I promise you you’ll be bored,” as Gary Hart did, and soon came to regret.

Going through these various sites had the feeling of a guilty pleasure, like the character in Larry Groce’s song “Junk Food Junkie,” who eats vegetarian, all-natural health food by day and gorges himself on junk food by night.  I do not identify as a libertarian at all politically.  Anarchist author Chaz Bufe’s definition seems to be the most accurate: “A member of the Libertarian Party, an altruistic person who works to ensure that all other persons have exactly (and only) the amount of liberty that their money can buy.”  After seeing what is potentially available to anyone with a modem (and even more if they have a PayPal account or a credit card), the idea of limited government involvement in day-to-day lives sounds more attractive.

I have to confess that, while writing this blog tonight, I added the free service Dirtsearch.org to my Google Chrome browser.  Their slogan, which is available on T-shirts, is Are You Dirty?  It is the first Website of this type that gives this activity an almost pornographic sense.

Long gone are the days when the geographic cure could actually help.  Americans have always enjoyed watching Westerns in the movie theaters and on TV.  In truth, how many of the men and women who settled in the American West (or came here from elsewhere) were people who had done something very bad, either in the eyes of the law or their neighbors, and had genuinely reformed and was sorry about what had happened?  People like this would be persona non grata in their communities, sometimes dangerously so.  Leaving all behind to relocate in the frontier, or across a less-than-friendly ocean, gave them the chance to start anew, in a place where people would accept them at face value, and base their opinions on how the person acted, worked, and contributed in their young society.

That would be impossible today.

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