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By | Dan Goodin 26th February 2008 03:56

Want to snoop on your neighbors? Come and work in Wisconsin

'Politicians, community leaders, board members, officers, family, friends. All over the place'

A legal case against Wisconsin's largest utility has provided a candid glimpse into a world where employees use detailed company records to snoop on celebrities and ex-lovers.

According to this recently published article by the Associated Press, a massive database maintained by Milwaukee-based WE Energies has been routinely accessed by employees looking for dirt on enemies or who are merely nosy.

"People were looking at an incredible number of accounts," the utility's vice president of customer service, Joan Shafer, testified in a sworn deposition last year. "Politicians, community leaders, board members, officers, family, friends. All over the place."

Among the people caught up in the mass snooping was then-acting Milwaukee Mayor Marvin Pratt. In 2004, as he was running for that office, a utility employee helped leak information to the media that Pratt was often behind in paying his heating bills. Pratt lost the election.

Other examples included a landlord who snooped on tenants to learn about their finances, a woman who repeatedly accessed her ex-boyfriend's account and someone who accessed a man's address so he could be served court papers.

The massive database at WE Energies contains credit and banking information, payment histories, social security numbers, addresses, phone numbers and energy usage. It sometimes also includes income and medical information.

Between 2005 and 2007, WE Energies disciplined at least 17 employees for breaking policies regarding the access of confidential information. But Shafer testified that it would be "difficult, if not impossible" to uncover all the instances of misuse.

A spokesman said the company has safeguards in place to clamp down on the practice. He declined to name them.

While the case focused on the utility, it's not hard to imagine other companies - say, large search engines whose business model depends on storing huge amounts of information about its millions of users - having similar problems.

And it's not hard to imagine employees of government agencies doing the same thing. Indeed, last year, the IRS has taken 219 disciplinary actions, such as firings and suspensions, against employees who improperly accessed confidential information. That was more than twice the number from the previous year. ®

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