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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 3, 2003

New Google map feature gets up close, too personal?

By Jeff Gelles
Knight Ridder News Service

Can information technology make some things too easy?

If you have any lingering doubts, try this out the next time you're online: Go to Google's main search page (www.google.com), and type in your phone number: 10 digits, no prefixes, no spaces. Chances are, your name and address will pop up.

That's not all this new Google feature does. Through the magic of the Web, you can click straight to maps of your neighborhood and driving directions to your home — available to anyone who starts with your phone number.

Disturbed? To its credit, Google has anticipated that, too. Click on the telephone icon to the left of your name, and Google offers an option to have your name removed from its directory.

The tougher question is what the proliferation of personal data says about our privacy — and whether you can do anything else about it.

Google minimizes its feat, saying the PhoneBook listings are taken from "telephone directories and other public records available elsewhere on the Web."

The company essentially says: Unless you have an unlisted number, anyone with a phone directory — or access to a site such as www.switchboard.com — can look you up, anyway.

In one sense, there's nothing revolutionary about the new Google service, as anyone who's ever used a "crisscross directory" can tell you. Block by block and address by address, the crisscross lists names and phone numbers, occasionally even unlisted ones. Like the Google tool, you could start with a phone number and find a name and address. These hefty and costly directories are used mostly by marketers, but available to anyone at the public library.

Some people are private by nature or habit. Others have real concerns for safety. But for all of us, the more our personal details are known and made easily accessible, the less our private lives are our own.

Technology magnifies the problem, which is why Google's PhoneBook concerns Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Hoofnagle says so-called "data miners" want to know everything about us — not just our addresses and phone numbers, but our credit records and clothing sizes, too — because personal information is like money in the bank.

To slow the flow of your personal data, Hoofnagle recommends opting out every chance you get, especially by telling financial institutions not to share your personal information. For tips on doing so, go to www.privacyrights.org/financial.htm.