We Know Where You Live – The Death Of Privacy Online

There has been a flurry of posts in discussion lists and online articles recently about a new Google feature called Google Phone Book, which will allow users to perform a reverse lookup search on any phone number. The results page displays a cute little phone icon beside the name of the owner of any phone number you plug in to Google’s search box!

The address of the owner of that phone number is displayed with their name, and beside the address appear links that will take you to a Yahoo! Maps or MapQuest, which will provide detailed and precisely accurate directions that will allow the user to drive directly to their home!

The only way to make these results more invasive would be to include any known email addresses right beside the phone number, street address and driving directions! In fact, a popular new book for Internet geeks, called Google Hacks, from O’Reilly, offers tips on how to use that feature to refine your search further if you know the state or town of the person you are searching for!

Fortunately, Google has made it simple to opt-out of this privacy nightmare. Read Google’s description of this “feature”.

They make it painlessly simple to opt out of the listing and promise removal within 48 hours. And finally, they provide a snail mail address to allow you to opt out of the listing by postal mail if you like.

Google Phone Book Removal
2400 Bayshore Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043

…along with a warning:

"Removing your phone book listing will not remove your personal information from other pages on the Web, or from other reverse phone listing lookup services, such as: Anywho.com, SwithchBoard.com, WhitePages.com, ReversePhoneDirectory.com, PhoneNumber.com, SmartPages.com"

One other service provides a clear and simple opt-out from the following link:

http://www.PhoneNumber.com/10006/remove.xhtml

So What? It’s in The Phone Book Anyway, Right?

When I first discovered this feature, I spoke with a relative whose response was basically, "So what? All that information is available in your local phone book and if you don’t have that, you can call information nationwide to ask for the listing.”

Yes, that should be true. But I searched an unlisted phone number of another relative who was nothing short of horrified when they saw their home address, name and phone number pop up on the Google results page. Not only did her unlisted number show up, but so did her full name, which is not available even to her phone provider – because she uses only initials on her account with them. Clearly, these online services draw from other available sources.

Those additional services don’t make it nearly as simple to opt-out as Google does — they require that you jump through multiple hoops to find your way out of their invasive databases.

WhitePages.com‘s privacy policy is linked very subtly at the bottom of the page, and was difficult to see, even though I was looking specifically for the link. The privacy policy offers zero options to opt-out of their database, nor does it tell you where to look for help!

Instead, the site owners tell you that they collect reams of information about how you use their site, what sites you visited in their network, any "voluntarily provided information" (which is required to register at the site) and who they share that information with. But they provide no published way to remove yourself from their database once you’re listed, no matter where they got their information.

The only hint of an opt-out option is via a simple email address, privacy@w3data.com This email address is a requirement of WhitePages.com’s membership in BBBonline’s Privacy Program, which is open to anyone who meets the Program’s minimum requirements: posting a privacy policy and providing an email contact to a privacy representative. Oh, and are willing to pay BBBonline for the privilege of displaying their rather meaningless “privacy lock” logo. Why is it meaningless? Well, just how private is a site that allows easy access to private personal information via a site search feature? And why do they deserve the trust of site visitors?

When you perform a search for any number in the "white pages" of SwitchBoard.com, it returns a page full of banner ads, some of which are pop-ups in which form fields are pre-filled with the name of the person you searched on! This allows you to easily search other sources for someone who has, so far, been successful at staying out of the online databases! And those paid services will pry into other public records databases to track them down!

More Invasive Pre-Populated Forms in Ads on Sites

Then, there is the pre-populated form in an advertisement that leads you to KnowX.com where, if the person you seek is not listed in the publicly available free listings, they will search public records for a fee, but only if you are a member of KnowX.com.

To become a member, you must (surprise!) provide your own detailed contact and credit card information, which they could file for sale to anyone willing to pay for it (and how would you ever know?). Their privacy policy might better be labeled a "Lack of Privacy Policy", given that they plainly state within it:

"CAN I OPT OUT OF PUBLIC RECORDS DATABASES?

No. Public records, by law, must be available from the official public records office to anyone who requests them. Accordingly, because individuals cannot opt out of public records databases generally, KnowX.com does not offer individuals the opportunity to opt out of our public records databases."

Oh well, you’re stuck if you are listed by KnowX.com, but it’s good to know that if you are not listed in the top level of their records, they’ll give you options of browsing through up to 38 other databases for varying fees! …Only if you’re a member. Fortunately, they allow everyone to see their prices. They provide a long list of the prices they’ll charge as they strive to invade everyone’s privacy.

Curiously, that page is only approachable from within their site from a plainly visible "Prices" link, but takes you to a log in screen when approached by an exterior link.

Where Does All The Information Come From?

Where do all these sites get their information? Few seem to want to discuss where they source individuals’ details, but one (ATT-owned Anywho.com) tells you at their FAQs page that their database is not populated by extracting information from your long distance billing records.

Q: Where does AnyWho get the directory information?

A: All of the residential white pages are public information obtained from local telephone records for published telephone listings. Non Published directory assistance records are not provided and are not displayed. None of the listings contained in the white pages are obtained from AT&T billing records.

Visit this page to opt-out of their listings, or mail:

ATT AnyWho Directory Service
Attention: Listing Removals
P.O. Box 944028
Maitland, FL 32794-4028

Total Information Awareness Is Already Here

By far, the most invasive and extreme of the information services is InfoSpace.com, a clear predecessor to the ‘Total Information Awareness Office.’

InfoSpace returns a results page on the reverse phone lookup that not only lists the name and address of the owner of that number, but also:

  • those dreaded mapquest.com links to driving directions to their home,
  • the average value of a home in their neighborhood,
  • their email address (if InfoSpace has managed to get your search target to give it to them),
  • lists of names and addresses of their neighbors,
  • Websites in their listed city or town, and
  • classified ads from local listings.

There are dozens more links on the page purporting to represent services in the same town, but which are actually just links to advertiser sites with the ability to search for local dates from Match.com or apartments or restaurants, etc. Fortunately, there is one more very important link on that results page! If you want to get your own phone number and personal info removed from this database, there’s a link labeled "update/remove" beside your results. You can click this to request that they delete your information.

When you do that, they request an email address, so there is some (unearned) trust required in order to ask for removal. This seems reasonable enough, since one could otherwise update anyone’s information. But… wait a minute! What’s to stop someone from adding false information, providing their own email address for verification, then answering the email to confirm those changes?

Great Relationships Are Not Built on Privacy Invasion

The result page of the reverse lookup at InfoSpace displays a small graphic logo link for "Acxiom" in the lower left corner of some results pages, which, when clicked, takes you to Acxiom.com, whose tag line is "Great Relationships". A link on the front page takes you to another titled "What we do". Here, they proudly state,

"At Acxiom, we create and deliver customer and information management solutions that enable many of the largest, most respected companies in the world to build great relationships with their customers. Acxiom achieves this by blending data, technology and services to provide the most advanced customer information infrastructure."

That seems like a very long-winded way to say that they, too, are data aggregators, who make a living by selling consumer information to anyone who’s willing to pay for it. Great relationships? It takes three clicks from their "Privacy" link to get to a page that tells you that it is possible to opt-out!

Consumers may request an Opt-out Form by contacting Acxiom’s Consumer Advocate Hotline, 501-342-2722 (toll free 1-877-774-2094 option #5 in telephone tree and be prepared to leave your information on their recorder. There’s no human contact here — you must simply trust that they will respect your privacy and protect your information, hmmmm.) or sending an email to optout@acxiom.com

"You Have Zero Privacy Anyway, Get Over It!"

In January of 1999 Sun Microsystems CEO, Scott McNealy said, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it!" Privacy advocates and industry analysts were stunned and surprised by the comment.

Now, Google’s new phone book feature is drawing fire from the public, and generating lots of heated discussion online. My own opinion is that we may soon be looking back and wondering why nothing was done to stop this continuing encroachment on our private lives by inevitability of ever-converging databases.

If only Google were the only privacy concern we had to face! It’s becoming more difficult by the day to stay out of databases that may soon have more information available in one click than anyone ever thought they needed to know about you. Privacy is becoming a rather quaint notion and, inevitably, unfortunately it may soon disappear entirely. Stalkers, identity thieves and marketers have never had it so good when it comes to finding victims, tracking them down and selling them things by phone at dinnertime.

One positive privacy development is the upcoming "Do not call registry", set to debut in July.

That new law puts some teeth into the fight against telemarketers by levying fines of up to $11,000 per violation. Too bad we can’t so easily rid ourselves of the stalkers and identity thieves.

Privacy Links

Removal Request Links

http://www.google.com/help/pbremoval.html

http://www.phonenumber.com/10006/remove.xhtml

http://www.anywho.com/help/privacy_list.html

Email Opt-out Addresses

optout@acxiom.com (Acxiom.com)
privacy@w3data.com

Phone Numbers

Note that these are correct at the time of writing.

501-342-2722 (toll free 1-877-774-2094 choose option #5) (Acxiom.com)

Postal Mail Addresses

Note that these are correct at the time of writing.

Google Phone Book Removal
2400 Bayshore Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043

ATT AnyWho Directory Service
Attention: Listing Removals
P.O. Box 944028
Maitland, FL 32794-4028

Online Privacy Resources

The Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 (G-L-B)

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 2000 (COPPA)

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA)

Americans for Computer Privacy

Center for Democracy and Technology

Computer Security Institute

e-Company Privacy Guide

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Electronic Privacy Information Center

Federal Bureau of Investigation

GetNetWise

Health Privacy Project

KidsPrivacy.Org

Online Privacy Alliance

Pew Internet and American Life Project

Privacilla.org

Privacy Coalition

Privacy Council

Privacy Foundation

Privacy International

Privacy.net

Privacy Place

Privacy Rights Clearing House

TRUSTe

WebVeil

Wired News Privacy Collection

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