Alumni Profiles

Privacy in a Cyber World

David Gottesman '70, right, encouraged Anna "Bobbie" Hantz '77, left, to attend law school: He kept his promise to hire her when given the opportunity.

When Helen and Tim Remsburg decided that something had to be done about the death of their daughter, Amy Lynn Boyer, at the hands of an Internet stalker, they contacted Nashua, N.H., lawyers David Gottesman '70 and Anna Barbara Hantz '77. Three years later, in February 2003, the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Remsburgs in a case that is now considered precedent-setting in the area of Internet privacy.

In the late 90s, Liam Youens developed an obsession with Boyer, a high school classmate he barely knew. Youens paid an Internet information broker for her Social Security number and workplace information. On Oct. 15, 1999, he shot and killed Boyer outside the dentist's office where she worked in Nashua, N.H., and then committed suicide.

The Remsburgs' case charged that the Internet information broker, Docusearch Inc., was liable when Youens killed Boyer. Seeking Boyer's personal information,Youens contacted Docusearch, and while they were unable to provide Boyer's date of birth, the company obtained her Social Security number from a credit-reporting agency and provided it to Youens for $45. To find Boyer's work address, Docusearch had a subcontractor call Boyer pretending to have an insurance refund for her, a type of search using false premises called a "pretext call." Docusearch charged Youens $109 for Boyer's work information.

In papers filed in federal court, Docusearch claimed it "could not have reasonably foreseen that providing Youens with Boyer's work address would result in a premeditated murder." The company also argued that it's unreasonable to expect a private investigator or information service to physically search courthouse records of each prospective client. (Youens' record included two misdemeanor complaints that had been dismissed.) Ultimately, Docusearch claimed, Boyer's work address was incidental to her death, since he knew her home address.

But the state Supreme Court sided with Gottesman and Hantz on three key issues: an investigator has a duty to exercise reasonable care in disclosing a third person's personal information; obtaining someone's Social Security number without that person's knowledge or permission could constitute an invasion of privacy; and pretext calling violates the state's consumer protection law.

Hantz says that while federal law addresses the sharing of financial information, there was nothing covering responsibility toward the individual whose personal information is misused. "This court case fills the gap for this negligence, or tort liability, toward the person," she says.

In January, the case was settled out of court, resolving two trials that were pending. The Remsburgs "feel that the principles they set out to establish have been accomplished," says Gottesman. "But no matter how much money they receive, it will never bring their daughter back."

The case has had repercussions in the field of private investigation. The industry regulates itself more carefully, even turning in investigators who are illegally obtaining information, says Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which submitted a brief in support of the Remsburgs. It is now a federal crime to lie to a bank or financial services company in order to gain information. More companies are providing customers with privacy policies, says Hoofnagle. Some states, such as California, are passing Internet privacy laws. And firewall software is increasingly being used to protect personal information, he says.

Late last year, Gottesman and Hantz were awarded the New Hampshire Trial Lawyers 2003 Special Recognition Award for their work on the case. "As time goes on, the power of the Web just amplifies," Hantz says. At the moment, it is still primarily up to states to sort out for the individual the ramifications of that power, she says.

"We feel that we have at least raised the level of awareness that people have for their own personal information and for the safety of their children," says Gottesman.

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