Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Google Reverse Phone Search

I recently received a forwarded message at work containing some sly misinformation on one of Google's features. You can search for a phone number on Google and if that number is listed it will show you whatever information it can find on it. Pretty neat, eh? Apparently there are privacy concerns, as the email described:

The email went on to give a set of verifiable instructions to check if your phone number nets results. It's legit. If your number is listed this really works.
Google has implemented a new feature which enables you to type a telephone number into the search bar and hit enter and you will be given the person's name and address. If you then hit the Map link, you will get a map to the person's house. Everyone should be aware of this! It's a nationwide reverse telephone book and mapping system
If a child gives out his/her phone number, someone can now look it up to find out where he/she lives. The safety issues are obvious and alarming.
What isn't legit are the "safety issues." They should be obvious, but not alarming. I say this because this information has been easily accessible for years. If your number is listed then all of this is easily obtainable. In fact, that's how Google was able to get the information: someone else has this information in a publicly available, search-able, index-able format. Google hasn't introduced anything new, they've just made it a little bit easier.

To demonstrate how little this changes, I did a search for my boss's phone number on whitepages.com. It returned her home address, both her and her husband's names (including middle initial) and their approximate ages. Not only was this just as easy as the Google search, it also supplied me with more information in the results. I'm quite positive that with a little more time and effort I could obtain far more information about her than Google provides alone.

The problem is even less profound when you consider the full scenario. If someone has access to your child enough to obtain their phone number then we can assume a few other things:
  1. They could probably harm your child right then, or at a later time in the same place.
  2. They would be able to follow your child home, or follow them until they are alone.
  3. It is likely that they could obtain other information, such as where the child lives, directly from the child.
If we take that into consideration we're left with a dramatically limited scope in which Google's feature makes any noticeable difference. In any of those instances the predator has no use for Google or any reverse directory. Plus, scenario 1 and 2 decrease the likelihood that you can do anything to change the situation. At least if someone is stalking your child at your home you have some control over whether that child is alone and some chance to take notice of unusual strangers.

I believe that predators who would rely on this feature are less dangerous, on average, than those who would use another method to obtain this information. That is because the more skilled stalker would be using other tools that return more information and are more likely to find a match. There are pay sites that offer huge amounts of aggregate public information, and with a little leg work you can find out plenty from public records offline. The less skilled predator is more likely to attack the child without ever bothering to search for additional information. Somewhere in between you have a stalker that needs easy to use tools like Google search, and is happy with the paltry amount of information it provides, yet they are willing to step back and research their victims. These people are more likely to exist in Lifetime made for TV movies than they are in the real world.

Perhaps I'm wrong, but I have the same belief about most technologies that make information more accessible. You should be more worried about the entities that had access to the information before. You should be most worried about the people who actively sought the information when it was difficult to obtain, not the ones who will only look when it's easy.

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