Jewish World Review May 13, 2003 / 11 Iyar, 5763

Mark Bowden

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Consumer Reports

A sense of invisibility, powered by technology — get a life, folks! -- I got an urgent e-mail last week from a friend who had discovered a devilish new computer trick.

If you enter a 10-digit telephone number into a popular search engine, it will tell you the address where that number is located. Other search engines will quickly print you a map and even an aerial photograph of the property. My friend was shocked. She felt that the modern world had just invaded her privacy again, an apparently widespread fear.

A recent Fox News report on the subject breathlessly began:

"How would you feel if your name, address and even directions to your home were listed on the Internet for all to see? It's a scary thought and it's happening to a lot of people."

Get a grip.

I'm guessing that the people alarmed by this - like my friend - are young. When I was a kid, my telephone number advertised my location. I can still remember the number at the house where I grew up in Glen Ellyn, Ill. Back then you spoke to an operator when you picked up the phone. I said, "Hopkins9-3512." When the system was automated it became HO9-3512, or 469-3512. "Hopkins" designated my neighborhood in Glen Ellyn. Ask just about anybody in that neighborhood for the Bowden house, and you could find us.

Reverse telephone directories have been available in newsrooms, public libraries and police stations for as long as there have been telephone books, and anybody who can read a map can find an address. The Internet has just sped up and made more useful a time-tested reference source. It has always been a rather esoteric search process because in the majority of cases, you know the name of the person you are looking for before you know his or her telephone number. As a newspaper reporter, I used a reverse directory to find someone no more than a few dozen times in more than 25 years.

Alarm over this kind of thing is a symptom of a modern phobia. Now, don't get me wrong. Serious issues of threats to privacy are raised by the Internet. The government should not have the long-term power it has under the Patriot Act to look up the borrowing habits of library customers. Employers and others should not have access to a person's medical or credit records. Identity theft is an important and growing phenomenon. The ease with which information is compiled and cataloged about us has potential pitfalls that need to be guarded against.

But such things as a reverse-telephone-directory service, Internet "cookies," and other electronic-marketing tools do not herald the death of personal liberty. (Cookies are small text files placed on your hard drive by Web sites to automate log-in procedures and track the visitor's interests. They identify the visitor's PC, but do not target private information.)

A large portion of our lives has always been lived publicly. We are social creatures. It is ironic that this very tendency to live together has created an unprecedented kind of anonymity. The enormity of cities has afforded modern man the opportunity to do things in public with a kind of invisibility he never had in a tribe or a small town. Many people enjoy this anonymity so much that they have come to consider it a birthright, or to believe it is a natural state.

Consider, for example, pornography. Like it or not, pictures of people engaging in sex have widespread appeal. For many people, the lure of pornography is countered by personal morality, but also by taboo. Taboo was for many years the major check on the porn industry, which flourished anyway. Stores selling pornography in small towns 30 years ago were furtive establishments. The consumer went shopping at the risk of his or her reputation.

Electronic technology - both the computer and subscription television - has removed pornography from the public arena. The ability to purchase louche material in complete privacy not only created boom times in the porn industry, it has powered the introduction of some Internet and TV technology. Why? Because it evades taboo. The once-public act of shopping has been made private. In this instance, it seems, the golden age of privacy is now.

What many people see as new intrusions on privacy are, in fact, restoring a more traditional community. I grew up in a world where people could find my house if they knew my telephone number, and where shopping was something done in public. It wasn't so bad. If my online movie renter or bookseller knows my preferences, it's like the old corner bookshop owner who would tip me to the latest Patrick O'Brien or Elmore Leonard novel.

The good news is that most of this technology is optional. Cookies can be rejected, TVs can be turned off, and you don't have to use your credit card on the Internet. You can order by mail or phone, or actually go shopping.

And as for the nefarious telephone number/Internet trick, here's a high-tech tip: Get an unlisted number.

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