There seems to be no limit to the methods by which people can gather information about one another via the Web. Whether it's purchasing records from an information broker like ChoicePoint, tracking someone down via posts on a Web site or blog, or using a public search engine like Google, your basic life details are an open book for anyone with smarts and a connection to the Internet.

Now there is ZabaSearch, a search engine that claims to offer any user a free background search on any individual in the United States.

Type in a person's name and you'll get their name, address, date of birth, and (as of this printing) nonfunctional links to a background check and "ZabaSearch" engine. The site has only been active since February of 2005, and is currently in the beta stages of development.

However, elsewhere on the page, you are offered a full background check on your subject, including 20-year address histories, bankruptcy and lien judgments, and family addresses, all for $22.95, or $7.95 each for multiple searches with a $35 "membership fee." And, according to ZabaSearch's publicity materials, all of this information is gathered from publicly available state and local databases, and is perfectly legal.

Is that true? How does this site get its information? For that matter, who created ZabaSearch and where did they come from?

"Not a Database"

ZabaSearch's founders, Robert Zakari and Nicholas Matzorkis, maintain that the site is safe because it's not a database where information is stored. Rather, they say, it's a search engine that parses available public database records for individual information.

In an interview with Wired Magazine, Zakari says that making ZabaSearch available to individuals levels the playing field.

"Personal information in the U.S. is a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry," he said. "It's just a question of who has access. You, or the people selling it to other companies to market things to you?"

One of the contentions regarding ZabaSearch is that its aggregated records are often inaccurate and out of date, a complaint that's also frequently leveled against information brokers and credit reporting agencies.

Beyond the loss of privacy, consumers can be harmed by sloppy information-gathering practices, such as being wrongly identified as a criminal in a background check. Matzorkis claims this is the fault of the public databases ZabaSearch compiles its information from, not the fault of the search engine or its owners.

"We are not society's caretakers," he states. "We are technologists and entrepreneurs."

In the entrepreneurial spirit, ZabaSearch offers a $100 "Find Anyone" service conducted by "professional skip trace" experts, and including "guaranteed access to ZabaSearch" through 2005.

What if you want to "opt out" of ZabaSearch? In order to remove your own information from the service, you have to physically mail the site owners and provide your name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, etc. Not only is this a time-consuming process, it can render you vulnerable to identity theft.

So who are Matzorkis and Zakari, and how is it that they claim authority to trade in individuals' information?

The Men Behind The Curtain

Nicholas Matzorkis and Robert Zakari have enjoyed a long partnership in technology businesses. Matzorkis formed the for-pay online search database US-Search.com in 1994, and was also connected to GlobalAgora, a joint business venture with Chinese shopping mall owners to provide the Chinese with Internet-phone-enabled shopping technology.

Curiously, despite the fanfare greeting the launch of the GlobalAgora venture in 2001, there are no public records of its success, or even an English-language Web site.

Matzorkis and Zakari's most recent business venture, PeopleData, offers a set of search tools (and a Web site) that are virtually identical to ZabaSearch. Although the PeopleData site redirects to ZabaSearch, I was able to access a mirror site that performs the same function as ZabaSearch - parsing of basic information and links to paid "premium" search services.

Although the owners have claimed that PeopleData serves a different purpose and clientele than its successor, a cursory viewing shows little difference between the two sites.

PeopleData's usage terms not only aggressively protect the site from any liability, but also state that, "Although most information is usually removed or blocked permanently, PeopleData does not guarantee that the information will not be available again in the future from other sources or PeopleData itself."

In other words, even if you remove your personal information, they might just restore it later.

Heaven's Gate

Zakari's and Matzorkis' first brush with the limelight came under much stranger circumstances. In 1997, when 39 members of the "Heaven's Gate" cult committed suicide in Santa Fe, California, Matzorkis and cult member Richard Ford were the first to discover the bodies and alert local authorities.

Zakari, a Pasadena-based lawyer, acted as Ford's counsel while he attempted to gain control of the multimedia company that owned Higher Source, the Heaven's Gate-supported Web design firm, which provided Matzorkis many employees for his Web businesses.

Both Matzorkis and Zakari have repeatedly denied being members of the Heaven's Gate organization or supporting them in any way, and have objected to their involvement with the cult being mentioned in articles about ZabaSearch.

The Best Defense

Anita Ramastry, a law professor and contributor to the Findlaw legal resource Web site, believes that while the increasing proliferation of "data dossiers" is potentially threatening, it is protected under the First Amendment.

Though the 1974 Privacy Act prohibits the government from collecting and aggregating information about individual citizens, it doesn't prevent private information sellers from collecting and selling this information back to the government, to other companies and individuals, or hoarding it for themselves.

In this respect, ZabaSearch is no different from established information brokers like ChoicePoint, LexisNexis and major credit reporting agencies -- it's just clumsier and more obvious.

So what can you do to protect yourself? The basic answer is to be much more careful and guarded with your information, and to immediately move to protect it any time it is used for actions you object to.

A more adventurous option is to use the same information-gathering resources that data resellers do, and use them to point out how dangerous it is that "information brokerages" are not better regulated.

For example, just by performing a simple search with Google and Yahoo, I found out that Nick Matzorkis was not only connected to the Heaven's Gate cult, but also violated his probation for an Ohio grand theft auto conviction in 1991.

I was also able to access public records of his contract with US-Search, including his compensation and duties. All of the references in this article were found with basic Web searching tools. Imagine what I could have found if I'd put some effort into it.

Until the state and federal governments enact stricter regulations on information trading, and data resellers face stronger penalties for letting info get into the hands of identity thieves, the best defense Americans have is a good offense - using the freedom of information to point out why no single company or authority should have control over it all.