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High tech genie out of the bottle

05/13/03 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert is here to describe a high-tech genie that he's afraid has escaped from its bottle.

(Gilbert) There's a new feature on the web that frightens me. It's an online search feature that, to my mind, represents a significant new level of invasion of privacy. Anyone, from any computer in the world, can connect to the web, navigate to a popular search engine site, type in your phone number, and within seconds obtain your name, address, and a road map to your house. The feature is available on the popular search site, google.com. And it works as simply as I've described. The feature also pulls up web references that contain the phone number for the person who is listed. If it's a prominent person -- such as a politician -- there may be lots of references.

You might want to type in your own phone number and see what comes up. Maybe little will appear. In fact, nothing will appear if your phone number is unlisted. But chances are that you'll see some "hits" -- your address and the map that could show someone down the street or halfway around the world how to find your home. And if you belong to say, the local chamber of commerce, that might show up, too.

You can block access to this search-by-phone feature in Google. If a search on your number is successful, click on the phone icon to the left of your name. Scroll to the paragraph that reads, "To have your residential or business phone and address information removed from the Google Phone Book, click here." Then fill out the e-form that appears.

This combining of search features is sometimes called "concatenation." Concatenation means to link things in a series. In this new high-tech example of concatenation, none of the individual features is new. The phone number look-up, the map, the search engine - they've all been available before, at different sites on the web. Google, however, has put them all together in one place, in one function. Linking them in this way makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. And the speed of the web makes the chain that much more powerful.

Web-based concatenation is a high-tech Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It's great to know a friend's phone number, enter it into Google, and get a map to his or her house -- as well as to check up on whether the friend has been involved in something that's listed on the web. On the other hand, it's frightening to think that anyone, anywhere, can, for whatever reason, pinpoint exactly where you live and identify activities that you might be involved in.

This is the brave new world that we live in. While we enjoy greater access to information, our privacy - at least as we've known it - can easily be invaded. The genie is out of the bottle, and it's looking for the next link.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.
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