The readers invariably believe that this is a violation of their privacy and their constitutional rights and an invitation to vandals and burglars, and they want to know how Google can be stopped.
Well, it can’t. In fact, there are far more invasive search functions out there on the Internet today, and we’ll get to one of the wildest of them in a moment.
First, the phones.
The Google function works, as described, for most published, residential telephone numbers, unless they’re new. It does not work for nonpublished numbers or cell phone numbers. But you can, indeed, quickly call up a map to many folks’ homes if you know their phone numbers.
All seasoned news-snoops know that, in reality, there’s nothing new about this.
For decades, every newsroom has been stocked with a set of big, bulky books that give reverse listings for phone numbers and addresses. You could find them in the public library, too.
These tomes, which weigh about 10 pounds each, were vital to newsies in the pre-computer, pre-Google days. If you had a phone number, you’d use the book to cross-check the address, then go to a huge city map that was bolted to the newsroom wall, and that’s how you tracked down your quarry when chasing a breaking story.
We did it all the time. Every day of the week. All Google has done is make the system faster and better organized.
Worried about a simple map to your home?
There are other Web sites out there that will reward time and patience with a fairly clear satellite photo of many addresses in the United States.
Whiling away the hours between rare moments of honest work, I’ve actually called up satellite photos of the house I’m living in now, homes of friends and relatives, and the house where I grew up in northeastern Ohio. Try www.terraserver.microsoft.com.
So, if you’re truly neurotic, your fears of Internet-powered vandals and burglars should now include airborne miscreants who can zero in on you by satellite and wreak havoc from the skies.
Will any of us ever sleep again?
Maybe not. A story in the May 20 New York Times raised hackles with its description of a political Web site — www.fundrace.org — that has a new snoop function called “Neighbor Search.” The site gleefully invites you to “find out who your friends and neighbors are supporting” in the presidential election.
The site will let you track federal campaign donations by the donor’s name or address, or simply by ZIP code. With a few keystrokes, you can find out which of your neighbors donated to which presidential candidate and how much. It documents all donations of more than $200 to a presidential campaign between Jan. 1, 2003, and March 31, 2004, and is updated regularly.
I tried the site repeatedly Thursday, but apparently the publicity compelled multitudes of snoops to do the same, bogging down the process. Each time, I got a message that said, “We are terribly sorry. So many people are coming to the site that our database cannot handle it for the moment.”
Again, all of this information has long been available publicly, but in formats that made it too difficult and time consuming for the average busybody to bother with.
That’s no consolation to a lot of donors who long thought that their gift to a presidential campaign, like their vote, likely would remain a secret, so long as they didn’t plaster their front lawn with campaign signs.
As one of them wrote in a complaint to the Federal Election Commission, “A future employer could give a job I was applying for to someone that shares their political philosophy, and I might never know the reason I was overlooked.”
All in all, openness in campaign financing is better than the old way of doing things. But when a neighbor can punch a couple of computer keys and see which candidate you’re backing, it makes one nostalgic for the days of an envelope stuffed with $20 bills, which got the job done but told no tales. S
Dave Addis is a columnist at the Virginian Pilot. Contact him at (757) 446-2726 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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