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Your Phone Number is Your Ticket to Online Privacy Invasion
 

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Your Phone Number is Your Ticket to Online Privacy Invasion


ARTICLE SUMMARY

Privacy concerns have been raised recently by a new phone book tool made available by the popular search engine, Google.com. While this tool does seem quite invasive and does make it frighteningly simple for anyone to find out where you live by plugging your phone number into a search engine query, there are dozens more sources for personal private information on the web. Getting out of some of those databases is rather easy by simply submitting online requests or sending an email to the proper contact address or privacy officer of a web site. But other sources tell you that they draw their information from publicly available sources and that you cannot opt-out once they have your private and personal details in their database.

This article points out those sites that do allow opt-out and provides information to help make that process simple. Privacy advocate, Mike Valentine points out those websites that seem to have too much information and warns of the inevitable convergence of all of those online sources into a huge database rivaling that of the controversial "Total Information Awareness" office of the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency.

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Welcome Aboard, You can Never Leave The Ship SS Database
by Mike Banks Valentine

There have been a flurry of posts in discussion lists and online articles recently about a new Google feature called Google Phone book which will now allow you to do 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 beside that and there are links beside the address which will take you to a <http://maps.yahoo.com/> Yahoo Maps or <http://mapquest.com/> MapQuest with detailed and precisely accurate driving directions directly to their home! The only way to make that result more invasive would be to include any known email addresses right beside the phone number, street address and driving directions! Fortunately, Google has made it simple to opt-out of this privacy nightmare.

Here is Google's description of this feature

http://www.google.com/help/features.html#wp

They make it painlessly simple to opt out of the listing and promise removal within 48 hours:

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

and finally a snail mail address 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"

A popular new book for internet geeks called GOOGLE HACKS from O'Reilly offers tips for how to use that feature to refine your search further if you know the state or town of the person you are searching for!

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 of 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 tried the search on their own number and 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 services draw from other available sources.

Those additional services don't make it nearly as simple to opt-out as Google does and require jumping through multiple hoops to find your way out of those invasive databases. WhitePages.com/ privacy policy is linked very subtly at the bottom of the page and was difficult to see, even though I was looking for the link. That privacy policy offers zero option to opt-out of their database or tell you where to look for help!

They 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 provide no published way to remove yourself from their database once you are listed, no matter where they got their information.

The only hint of an opt-out option is via a simple email address, mailto:privacy@w3data.com This email address is required by their membership in BBBonline's Privacy program, which is available to anyone meeting minimum requirements of posting a privacy policy and providing an email contact to a privacy representative. Oh, and willing to pay BBBonline for the privilege of displaying the rather meaningless privacy lock logo. Why meaningless? How private is a site that allows easy access to private personal information via a site search feature and why do they deserve trust of site visitors?

When doing a search for any number in the "white pages" of SwithchBoard.com, it returns a page full of banner ads, some pop-up with pre- filled form fields with the name of the person you did a search for! This allows you to easily search sources elsewhere for someone who has so far been successful at staying out of the online databases! 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 their 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 detailed contact and credit card information, which they could file for sale to anyone willing to pay for it. (How would you ever know?)

Their privacy policy might better be labeled a "Lack of Privacy Policy" when they plainly state within that policy:
"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 looking through up to 38 other databases for varying fees! But only if you are a member. Fortunately they allow everyone to see their prices. They provide a very long list of prices for each of the places they will strive to invade everyone's privacy here:

http://www.knowx.com/statmnts.exe?form=statmnts/priceinfo.htm
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 directly. Take a look at some of those surprising databases that they'll search to scrape up any information they can come up with to expose your personal and private information to the world.

(If you are a fan of pop-ups, you'll love the KnowX site. I got nine pop-ups while researching this article at their site.)

WHERE DOES ALL THE INFORMATION COME FROM?

Where do all these sites get their information? Few seem to want to discuss where they get it, but one (ATT owned Anywho.com) tells you 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.
http://www.anywho.com/help/faqs_wp.html

to opt-out of their listings

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

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 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 NEIGHBORS, web sites in their listed city or town, and classified ads from local listings.

There are dozens more links on the page purporting to be to services in the same town which are actually just links to advertiser sites with ability to search for local dates from Match.com or apartments or restaurants, etc. Fortunately, there is one more very important link on that result page if you want to get your own phone number and personal info removed from their database, labeled "update/remove" beside your results that you can click 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 annoys 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?

On July First of 2003, InfoSpace announced another, even more invasive data aggregation service called People Profile USA that will sell complete datasets on its online database of 200 million individual consumers and 104 million U.S. households to anyone willing to pay for that information. They proudly proclaim that this dataset, gathered from other public databases, will cover complete contact and address information, home ownership, family members, and even their hobbies! It gets uglier by the minute in database nation.

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" where 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 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, no human contact here and you must trust that they will respect your privacy and protect your information, hmmmm.)

or sending an e-mail to mailto: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." and privacy advocates and industry analysts were stunned and surprised by the comment.

http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,17538,00.html

Now reactions from the public on the phone book feature added by Google to it's long list of available search tools is drawing fire 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.

Oh, if only Google were the only privacy concern we had to deal with. It is 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 on you. Privacy is becoming a rather quaint notion and, inevitably, unfortunately, 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" in July. You can read more about it here:

http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/donotcall/index.html

That new law puts some teeth into the fight against telemarketer 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.

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

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

Postal Mail Addresses

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

AUTHOR BIO

Mike Banks Valentine is a Search Engine Optimization Specialist and Personal Privacy Advocate http://PrivacyNotes.com/ He moderated a Privacy Discussion List for Adventive.com for several months. http://www.adventive.com/lists/iprivacy/summary.html He spends his days doing search engine optimization and marketing http://SearchEngineOptimism.com for businesses seeking visibility. Operating a small business internet tutorial for several years helping entrepreneurs launch their early internet presence has been a passion.