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Why We Wish Some Public Information Would Remain Bound To Atoms (The Public Privacy Dilemma)

By - November 15, 2003

In the past few months I’ve gotten a fair number of similar email threads forwarded my way by friends who know I’m writing about search. By the time they’ve gotten to me, the emails have wound their way fairly well through the six-degrees-of-separation web, with scores if not hundreds of souls cc’d, forwarded, and attached. The subject line usually blares something along the lines of “I can’t believe they can do this!” and “Oh My God, Did You Know?”

Here’s a sample email, with identifying information deleted:

Subject: This is hard to believe, but true, I tried it.

Google has implemented a new feature wherein you can type someone’s
telephone number into the search bar and hit enter and then you will be
given a map to their house.
Before forwarding this, I tested it by typing my telephone number in My phone number came up, and when I clicked on the MapQuest link, it actually mapped out where I live. Quite scary.
Think about it–if a child, single person, ANYONE gives out his/her phone
number, someone can actually now look it up to find out where he/she
lives. The safety issues are obvious, and alarming. This is not a hoax; Mapquest will put a star on your house on your street.

I understand the initial reaction of many to this feature (which is not that new). My God, They Know Where I Live! But this fear of a such a simple thing – a reverse directory lookup – bears further contemplation. Fact is, reverse directories are not illegal. But they are also not widely available – usually only cops and reporters had access to them. No more. (more via link below)

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Digital information is metastasizing our culture (I use the word neutrally, though I’d argue the author of the email would take the negative interpretation). As it spreads, unexpected challenges arise, and I’m interested in how newly digital information challenges presumptive and rarely voiced social norms. Google’s reverse directory lookup illustrates a particularly discomforting expression of this phenomenon, which for now I’ll call it the Public Privacy Dilemma.

Our society was built on the enlightened and somewhat thrilling idea of the public’s right to know. Our government is meant to operate more or less in the open. The same is true of our courts: unless a judge determines otherwise, every divorce, murder, felony, misdemeanor, and parking ticket is open to public scrutiny.

But while it’s comforting to know that we, the public, have the right to review this information, it’s also comforting to us to know that we very rarely do. After all, regardless of your prurient desire to know whether your new co-worker has a messy divorce or a DUI in his otherwise well-appointed closet, most of us will not waste an afternoon down in the basement of our county courthouse to find out. The very fact that it’s so much trouble to find such information has, in effect, muted that information. Unless office gossip precedes our new partner in cubicle land, we don’t even think of such questions when introduced.

But what if it were as easy as typing his name into Google? Oh, whoops, I forgot, in many cases, it already is.

And herein lies the rub: What do we do when information we know, by law, should be public, becomes, well….Really Public? As in, First Page of Links When You’re Googled public? Can we take control back (by building high-ranking websites titled “I’m Really Not So Bad, I Swear!”)? Should we legislate away the digital, draw the line of what’s “public” at atoms – information on paper, stored in a musty clerk’s office? In fact, the Florida Supreme Court is considering just that question.

Search engines like Google hold up a mirror to our culture, and remind us of both the laws and the mores to which we’ve become accustomed. We’re fine with folks knowing our phone number – we know it’s pretty much public record. But the act of using technology to connect that number to our address, our home, the place we keep most sacred – that’s somehow out of bounds. I’d be interested in your comments on this thought. I find it fascinating the Database of Intentions is forcing us to once again confront one of the most significant and difficult issues a democracy can face – the balance between a citizen’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know.

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3 thoughts on “Why We Wish Some Public Information Would Remain Bound To Atoms (The Public Privacy Dilemma)

  1. tim says:

    i think it gets better. by linking applications together with little more than GET commands, you can not only get phone -> address, but address -> lay of the land. That red dot is my mom’s car.

  2. How’d you do that, Tim?

  3. tim says:

    many mapping engines (Mapquest, for example) include aerial photos. Mapquest’s aerials are pretty low quality, but locally focused mapping engines often have excellent data for utility companies, construction firms, planners, etc.

    I manually typed in an address here, but it’s easy enough to dissect the GET command and construct your own commands. (Addresses are always converted into Lat/Long coordinates, for ex.)

    It’s just text: understand the grammar, and it’s almost infinitely malleable.