Cybersleuth

by rthieme on May 2, 1997

Cybersleuth

by

Richard Thieme

“The truth is out there,” says Lisa Soik, a local incarnation of X-files agent Dana Scully. “That’s the problem. There’s always more to learn. That’s what drives me. Wanting to know is not the hard part. The hard part is knowing when to stop.”

Lisa Soik is a dynamo of intelligence and energy, focussed like a laser. Franklin Information Group, Inc., her information recovery business, uses over 15,000 data bases in 123 countries to gather data – legally and ethically – on individuals and organizations.

Finding all that data in the public domain takes time and effort. Seeing the pattern — putting it together in a meaningful way — takes experience and intuitive knowledge bordering on genius.

That’s Lisa’s gift. She knows how to follow breadcrumbs – isolated bits and bytes of discrete data – through the forests of cyberspace, putting it all together until it makes sense.

Lisa’s passion for backgrounding grew from a strong sense of social responsibility. She worked with a school bus company that hired 250 drivers. Her need to know the criminal history and driving records of applicants led her to research ways to get accurate information quickly. From that small beginning, FIG now serves an extraordinary diversity of clients.

Lisa received a request recently from an intelligence agency preparing an identity for a protected witness. They asked her to test the identity, looking for flaws.

Times have changed since the allies created “The Man Who Never Was” out of forged documents during World War II. That “person” carried false information about the site of the D-Day landings, leading the Nazis to shift troops away from the real invasion sites.

Today an identity must be created from bits and bytes. An electronic trail must be built in painstaking detail in computer databases all over the world. Even more important, every trace of the witness’ real identity must disappear.

“I ask myself, how would I lose myself if I wanted to disappear? You can change the color of your hair and eyes. You can create a new work history. You can change how you spend money. But your fundamental interests don’t change. You can’t change who you really are.”

One ex-spouse for whom Lisa searched adopted three separate identities. But in every one of them, he told others he wanted to live in Seattle. That’s where he was found.

Another ex-spouse was always attracted to women with short brown hair and brown eyes. Too bad. That preference led to his discovery.

“It’s very difficult,” Lisa concludes, “to get lost.”

Looking for relevant information is like deer hunting. If the deer stands still, you can walk in front of its nose and never see it. If it moves, it’s yours. In the same way, a detail standing out against the background calls attention to itself.

Lisa once backgrounded an applicant for a position at an engineering firm and wanted to confirm details in his resume. The applicant said he attended a particular academic program. Lisa found someone who had been there. “I don’t remember meeting him,” the woman said. “That was a small group. I don’t think he was in it.” The applicant turned out to be one of the 85% said to falsify information on a job application or resume.

Divorce and backgrounding constitutes 30% of Lisa’s work. Another 30% is related to current litigation (she can tell an insurance company the weather conditions on any square foot of earth at a given moment). Business intelligence is the other 30% of Lisa’s work, and growing rapidly. Knowledge of competitors is a basic need, but Lisa is continually taken aback at how little businesses know about rivals.

She backgrounded a company in Illinois, for example, that her client thought was a small family-owned business. In fact, it was part of a multi-national company based in Germany. Her client had vastly underestimated their capitalization and the R&D resources that would fill their pipeline with products.

“Bust-out swindles,” Lisa says, “are also common. A company will establish a credit record with IBM or Xerox, then order from a small company and never pay. They can bankrupt a small business before they know what’s happening.”

The principals of a company, their personal and corporate history, financial structure, their major customers and government awards – that’s all in the public domain.

But it isn’t all in one place, nor is it legal to get it from one place. Lisa has to piece it together from dozens of sources.

“People often don’t understand what they’re asking,” Lisa says. “I ask what they want to know. ‘Everything,’ they say. ‘Give us everything you can get.'”

If she followed those instructions, her work would never end. So Lisa works from plateau to plateau, reporting at each stage. If a client wants to go to the next level, she does it.

“I always ask a client, is it worth it to you to get more information? Or do you have enough?”

The case is done when the client — or Lisa — says it’s done. Otherwise, she would never sleep or see her family. She’d always be filling in details at deeper and deeper levels.

“I set limits that help me stay grounded,” she says. “The boundaries are arbitrary but essential.”

Her hardest cases are when Lisa uncovers evidence of wrongdoing and can’t do anything about it. Sometimes a prominent person has committed a serious crime. Often persons who are in unconscious collusion with them don’t even want to know about it.

People commit themselves to a version of the truth that supports their view of the world. Faced with contradictory data, they often deny the data rather than change their minds. If they live and work in a culture that prefers appearances to reality, their resistance can be astounding.

“If you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist,” is the attitude often encountered in regard to white-collar crime, spouses hiding money in preparation for a divorce, or background screening of a job applicant.

In a small-town, for example, everybody may know everybody else. “If I find out that Joe’s brother-in-law was arrested for soliciting a prostitute in Miami, for example, and he’s applying for a job with the major employer in town, that revelation could unravel the entire social structure. Given a choice between the truth and protecting those structures, it’s no contest.”

Others don’t think they have a right to know that much about employees. It doesn’t seem right or fair to have so much information. Lisa’s response?

“I tell them they have both the right and the responsibility to know. Tort reform might change all this, but for now, if something blows up, the employer has the deepest pockets. That’s who lawyers target.”

She tells of the time a man was hired without any inquiry into his background. When he was charged with transporting stolen goods, it was discovered he had once robbed a family, tying them up and holding them hostage. The employer didn’t know because he never asked.

If it sounds like all you need is a computer to do it yourself … think again.

Lisa frequently consults experts in “gray research,” specialists in the minutia of a single domain. They know everything there is to know about one small thing. They’re everywhere, but you won’t find them in the yellow pages or on the Internet. Their network is based on word-of-mouth and absolute trust. It takes years to build a secure network of reliable connections.

The best defense against information searches in cyberspace? Be who you are, say what you mean, do what you say. Computers haven’t changed the need for integrity. Computers — and people like Lisa Soik — just make it easier to check us out.

published in .net (UK)

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