A Documents State of Mind

“How did you get this number?”

“Um, it’s public record.”

“What? My cell phone number is public record?” –click–

That was a conversation I had my second day at work. I understood how concerning this situation could be, rung up in the middle of the day by some obviously young (possibly infant) stranger, nosing his way into a part of your life, asking for somewhat personal information. In truth, I was just as confused as that person was – how this list of addresses, cell phone numbers and cell service providers found its way in my hands. And yes, admittedly, my reaction to tell them, essentially, that ANYONE could find this information left something to be desired. Still, it remains that both of us learned something since I started working here: personal information is abundant; it’s just a matter of digging.

Today I’m far more aware of my footprint. Literally, the Oregon Health Authority has it filed away, though in baby form. That information may be irrelevant to most people, but maybe I lied about where I was born for a tax benefit and I was running for public office. The information needed to prove or disprove my statements is out there, which is the basis for a documents state of mind, described in The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook as “knowing that a document exists somewhere to explore, contradict, or confirm each point of investigation.” It’s often a byzantine effort, but with enough wherewithal anyone can dig up personal data.

Bob Woodward (right) and Carl Bernstein, famous investigative reporters and huge-tie enthusiasts.

Just like any county recorder offices across the state has tax and property forms on any specific person in their jurisdiction, or how the courts catalog every speeding ticket, custody battle, and whathaveyou, it falls into the public domain. Moreover, the documents we’ve filled out from lease applications to magazine subscriptions have information on them that can be sold to companies like Accurint, who compile databases of places we’ve lived, worked, our phone numbers, and more.

That’s not to say it’s easy. It takes effort. Just understand this if a reporter calls you out of the blue.

Troy Brynelson

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3 Responses to A Documents State of Mind

  1. pdxsx says:

    Well done, Troy! Outstanding first post, excellent links and a great photo to boot. Sounds like you’ve already had a very interesting first couple of assignments at your internship. I expect you are going to be learning a lot this term!


  2. Chelsea Fung says:

    I didn’t realize how much information is public record. I’m going to investigate myself to see what’s out there. Thanks!

  3. I’ve had to do a bit of creeping online for emails at my work and it is crazy how much you can find about people with a bit of research. Spokeo.com has past addresses for almost anyone.

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