Stalking for Dummies

Try this:go to Google. Enter your phone number with the area code in the search box. In a matter of seconds, your name, your address and a map showing where you live pops up. Even if it is not supposed to be public information.

“I had two unlisted numbers at my home,” says Mark Spraggins. “After I received an e-mail about the phone-number search, I went on Google and put them in. They both came up with my name, my address and the map.”

Spraggins said that six months after he asked Google to remove his home phone number, he went back to check: it was still there.

Google technical spokesman Nathan Tyler claimed that posting phone numbers, even unlisted, “is a good thing. They can find out if they are actually unlisted or not.” But checks of phone directories failed to turn up the unlisted numbers. Tyler said Google's information came from “third-party providers” such as local phone companies.

It's cold comfort to learn that Google is not the only online purveyor of this data. Switchboard, Anywho and Whitepages are three other services that offer reverse phone lookups. Where in the real world a stalker needs a phone directory and a street map to ferret out a victim's home address, these websites deliver the exact map location in seconds. Though Google users may request to have the information removed from the site within 48 hours, it remains out there on the other sites. Millions of unsuspecting users don't even know it's there—and will stay there.

How the web indexes get your personal information is unclear. A Fullerton woman who has taken great pains to hide from an abusive ex-lover said, “I truly believe some big pizza delivery [company] has sold phone information.” At first glance, this may sound like an irrational fear, but on the wild, wild web, where lists of e-mail addresses are a hot commodity for spammers, such speculation may not be so farfetched. Not so long ago, AOL fired an employee for selling its subscriber list to a mass-e-mail marketer. Likewise, directories of phone numbers must command a high price from telemarketers, search engines, private detectives and stalkers.

The case of unlisted numbers in the electronic commons reveals a murkiness when it comes to holding search engines accountable for the gray-market exchange of personal information. Corporate Communications liaison Eileen Rodriguez bragged, “The Google PhoneBook feature was implemented several years ago, based on requests by users for a better way to find publicly listed addresses and phone-number information.” It's clear, however, they never asked people if they wanted those facts out there. And knowingly or not, Google's lists contain details that aren't in the public domain.

Profit-driven dot-coms do not protect privacy: they hand out secrets. To anyone. This is not to say Google and other reverse-lookup providers promote or even condone stalking: they just make it very easy.

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