Speaking at a conference this winter on Internet crime, eBay.com’s director of law enforcement and compliance, Joseph Sullivan, offered law-enforcement officials extensive access to personal customer information.
Founded in 1995 as a niche site for collectibles, eBay quickly grew into one of the Internet’s largest websites, currently boasting 69 million daily visitors, who place an average of 7.7 million bids each day. The company, now valued at $29.6 billion, has become synonymous with online shopping, and is rapidly expanding overseas.
Brags Sullivan, “If you are a law-enforcement officer, all you have to do is send us a fax with a request for information, and ask about the person behind the seller’s identity number, and we will provide you with his name, address, sales history and other details–all without having to produce a court order.” (eBay itself goes further than this, employing six investigators who are charged with tracking down “suspicious people” and “suspicious behavior.”)
Seventy percent of eBay customers, as well as a significant portion of the rest of the online commercial world, make their purchases using (eBay-owned) Paypal, which provides clearing services for online financial transactions. Through Paypal, eBay has access to the financial records of tens of millions of customers. “If you contact me,” said Sullivan to assembled law-enforcement authorities, “I will hook you up with the Paypal people. They will help you get the information you’re looking for…. In order to give you details about credit-card transactions, I have to see a court order. I suggest that you get one, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
Sullivan even offered to conscript eBay’s employees in virtual sting operations: “Tell us what you want to ask the bad guys. We’ll send them a form, signed by us, and ask them your questions. We will send their answers directly to your e-mail.”
Sullivan’s statements were first reported by Yuval Dror in the Tel Aviv-based daily Ha’aretz; surprisingly, they have received no coverage in the US media. And, while they may seem extreme, Sullivan’s eBay policies seem to fit into a larger pattern of eroding online privacy.
In the fall of 2001 a Stanford-educated Pakistani scientist, a permanent resident of the United States, was visited at his home in the Bay Area by the FBI, who asked about several books he’d recently purchased on eBay. The man’s lawyer said the FBI agent reported having been alerted by eBay. eBay denied having provided the information to the FBI, and the bureau refused to comment.