By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Breach of privacy at

After reading about Secretary of State Bill Galvin’s concern (Globe story here; Herald story here) that was not sufficiently protecting users’ privacy, I decided to experiment by starting the process of becoming a registered user.

First I was asked to enter my name or phone number. I entered “Dan Kennedy,” along with my town. No go. So then I entered just “Kennedy,” again along with my town.

Whoa! I got 78 names along with the streets they live on. The list consisted of everyone in my town named “Kennedy,” “Kenneth” or, oddly enough, “Kent,” “Kondo” or “Kimby.” Yes, Mrs. Media Nation and I were among the 78.

What’s weird about this is that the names are listed apparently for the sole purpose of your being able to verify that one of them is you. But you get the complete list without actually having to complete the registration process. So I can enter “Chen” and “Wellesley” and get another nice long list of names and streets, or, say, “Purcell” and “Weston.” Oh, look! There’s Pat Purcell, publisher of the Boston Herald.

I have no idea why this is necessary. Certainly I can’t think of another Web site for which I’ve registered that requires me to choose from a list of names. I enter my name, and away I go. I suppose the scheme makes it easier to avoid the problem of someone posting nutty comments under a pseudonym. But can’t an intern at this campaign-contribution-funded site intercept those comments? Surely that would be better than violating everyone’s privacy.

The site carries with it this disclaimer: “ believes strongly in protecting people’s privacy. Data on this site is limited to ONLY data that is now publicly available at any number of locations, including city and town halls, and websites. The site further limited data today by eliminating specific street address numbers.”

Is that right? Can any of Media Nation’s readers find a single Web site that displays entire lists of people along with the streets that they live on? (If you can, I’ll post it.) Yes, you can always get stuff like this by going to your town or city clerk’s office. But the hassle of having to do that is in itself a guarantee of a certain degree of privacy.

I’m with John Reinstein of the ACLU of Massachusetts, who tells the Globe’s Andrea Estes, “I’m puzzled by the whole thing.” And, unfortunately, I have to agree with the Herald’s Casey Ross, who calls this “yet another embarrassing misstep” for the governor.

And no, I didn’t complete the registration process.

Even worse: I just tried registering by entering my phone number, and up popped the Media Nation family. Unlike the registration-by-name feature, you don’t have to enter a city or town when you enter a phone number. So also works as a very nice reverse phonebook, using data you were required to provide to the state and paid for by a partisan political-campaign committee.

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  1. eeka

    If someone owns a home in the area, you can find this at or site is pretty good at finding addresses and birthdays of a person by typing in their name: sites on the stevemorse domain will pull up relatives, neighbors, household members, etc. There’s really a lot of public records on the internet. It’s pretty easy to find stuff about anyone.

  2. sco

    Ugh.I can tell you what happened. They tried to convert their voter ID tool to something everyone could access, and fell victim to one of the classic IT traps. They took pains to lock down the information you could get after you were logged in, but paid little or no attention to the login process itself. Then, they had people beta-test who 1) already were familiar with the old system and 2) already had logins.I can understand why they’d want to verify that people are real — they want this to be a site that connects people to each other and not just a fancy internet poll. Still, they should redesign the login.Regarding the reverse phone book, though, Google has the same functionality, though you can opt out of it.

  3. mike_b1

    This is awesome! Using Deval’s site, I was able to track down a mason who had done a crap job on my steps, then disappeared. It would have cost me $39.95 to use a person search site, but on Deval’s site I found him for free!Thanks, Governor!

  4. TMKeane

    Check out Even better than the Patrick site, it’ll give you house numbers on the reverse telephone lookup.

  5. Aaron Read comes pretty close…although admittedly it’s limited to people who signed the petition for blocking gay marriage.More relevant is something I found for Brookline: the Assesors Database. If you know a street name, you can get a complete list of all the owners of property on that street. I didn’t check other towns – I imagine most smaller towns don’t have such a comprehensive web site. But still…And the reverse lookup for phone numbers isn’t such a big deal. Anywho does that, too…and for the entire country.

  6. Dan Kennedy

    The reverse phone book on presumably includes unlisted numbers, although I’m not sure how valuable that is, given that you have to know the number first.Sco, thanks for explaining what went wrong instead of trying to defend the indefensible, as others seem compelled to do.

  7. Aaron Read

    Sco, thanks for explaining what went wrong instead of trying to defend the indefensible, as others seem compelled to do.Ouch…you wound me, sir!Actually that’s a good point…but I’d argue that you can’t decide to unload your ire on Deval just because he’s doing something that far too many other public websites are doing as well. Spread the outrage around a little, Dan. Don’t get mad at Deval just because he was the one that makes you realize any concept of privacy in this modern world is long since gone. 🙁

  8. sco

    Just so we’re clear, Dan, my comment is mostly conjecture, based only on knowing how the original system works, the people who developed it, and how IT projects in general are developed.Part of the problem is that Liz Morningstar is doing the Governor no favors by defending the very reasonable idea that logins should be restricted to real people and preferably voters while ignoring the fact that the way the system goes about achieving this is terrible.I feel bad for the guys that put this together. The idea that the login could be used for purposes other than what they intended probably never even crossed their minds.

  9. Ross

    Not only can you obtain street names from the site, but if you look carefully at the link of every listing, you can decode birthdays, as well. There is also an additional code (the fifth position in the link address) which I am sure carries some info, but which I have been unable to decode as yet.

  10. Tecknomage

    OK, so is abusing the system, but it does show you what’s out there already.Try Googling your private info. Your last name, first name, full name, address, home phone, etc., and see what you find.Your privacy is long gone. It was gone the first time you applied for a credit card, mortgage or other loan, bank account, on and on. The info you provided sat on some database on a computer and was sold or hacked. It is only recently we have become aware of it, and it’s much too late.

  11. Don

    Has anyone started to call him “Devil” yet? Or are you more charitable in the East?

  12. Anonymous

    dan, deval’s people did not invent this data mining software — they are licensing or piggybacking on software from anywho, the registries and instant credit outfits. i’m not saying they shudnt alter it if it upsets people. only that this dudgeon is mis-aimed.

  13. amusedbutinformedobserver

    Of course, Prince of Darkness Galvin doesn’t mention that he’s in charge of the Registry of Deeds across the state, even though they have elected registrars in each county. And guess what: Punch in a name of a property owner in the county in which they reside and you will soon have a home address.

  14. amusedbutinformedobserver

    P.S. Go to any city or town and check in the board of assessors listing. In many you can sort parcels by owner or street.How is this any different from the street lists that have been sold in town clerk’s offices since the beginning of time?

  15. Ryan Adams

    Obviously, the website has some kinks in the system. However, to hear the innuendo being thrown around here is absurd at best. The kinks were purely unintentional and anyone could have done it. The only thing Deval is guilty of is not employing a more rigorous beta test.

  16. Dan Kennedy

    Ryan: Why don’t you (1) take a look at the follow-up post I wrote this morning and (2) tell us what “innuendo” you’re referring to.

  17. Peter Porcupine

    Amused but Informed – About finding home addresses via Registry of Deeds searched – That’s why Repubicans own everything in Realty Trusts!And Dan – even when the confidentiality mess is cleaned up (really, a blast from Jane Doe too? Didn’t we pass a LAW about this protecting rape and trauma victims from having street addresses given out by town clerks?), I still say the biggest problem is that the site implies that those who submit concerns via the campaign site will receive speedier/more consideration. Is it time to scerw in the red light bulb over the donation button yet?

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