Net Users Try to Elude the Google Grasp
The New York TimesThe New York Times TechnologyJuly 25, 2002  

Job Market
Real Estate
- Circuits
- Columns
New York Region
NYT Front Page
Readers' Opinions

Dining & Wine
Home & Garden
Fashion & Style
New York Today
Week in Review
Learning Network
Theater Tickets
Premium Products
NYT Store
NYT Mobile
E-Cards & More
About NYTDigital
Jobs at NYTDigital
Online Media Kit
Our Advertisers
Your Profile
E-Mail Preferences
News Tracker
Premium Account
Site Help
Privacy Policy
Home Delivery
Customer Service
Electronic Edition
Media Kit
Community Affairs
Text Version

Discover New Topics in Depth

$7 Trades at Scottrade, Rated #1 Broker

Go to Advanced Search/Archive Go to Advanced Search/Archive Symbol Lookup
Search Optionsdivide
go to Member Center Log Out
  Welcome, cloud_reader

Net Users Try to Elude the Google Grasp


THE Internet has reminded Camberley Crick that there are disadvantages to having a distinctive name.

In June, Ms. Crick, 24, who works part time as a computer tutor, went to a Manhattan apartment to help a 40-something man learn Windows XP.

After their session, the man pulled out a half-inch stack of printouts of Web pages he said he had found by typing Ms. Crick's name into Google, the popular search engine.

"You've been a busy bee," she says he joked. Among the things he had found were her family Web site, a computer game she had designed for a freshman college class, a program from a concert she had performed in and a short story she wrote in elementary school called "Timmy the Turtle."

"He seemed to know an awful lot about me," Ms. Crick said, including the names of her siblings. "In the back of my mind, I was thinking I should leave soon."

When she got home, she immediately removed some information from the family Web site, including the turtle story, which her father had posted in 1995, "when the Web was more innocent," she said. But then she discovered that a copy of the story remains available through Google's database of archived Web pages. "You can't remove pieces of yourself from the Web," Ms. Crick said.

The gradual erosion of personal privacy is hardly a new trend. For years, privacy advocates have been spinning cautionary tales about the perils of living in the electronic age.

But it used to be that only government agencies and businesses had the resources and manpower to track personal information. Today, the combined power of the Internet, search engines and archival databases can enable almost anyone to find information about almost anyone else, possibly to satiate a passing curiosity.

As a result, people like Ms. Crick are trying to reduce their electronic presence and discovering that it is not as simple as it would seem. The Internet, which was supposed to usher in an era of limitless information, is leading some people to restrict the information that they make available about themselves.

"Now it's much more common to look up people's personal information on the Web," Ms. Crick said. "You have to think what you want people to know about you and not know about you."

These days, people are seeing their privacy punctured in intimate ways as their personal, professional and online identities become transparent to one another. Twenty-somethings are going to search engines to check out people they meet at parties. Neighbors are profiling neighbors. Amateur genealogists are researching distant family members. Workers are screening co-workers.

In other words, it is becoming more difficult to keep one's past hidden, or even to reinvent oneself in the American tradition. "The net result is going to be a return to the village, where everyone knew everyone else," said David Brin, author of a book called "The Transparent Society" (Perseus, 1998). "The anonymity of urban life will be seen as a temporary and rather weird thing."

Some believe that this loss of anonymity could be dangerous for those who prefer to remain hidden, like victims of domestic violence.

"If you are living in a new town trying to be hidden, it's pretty easy to find you now between Google and online government records," said Cindy Southworth, who develops technology education programs for victims of domestic violence. "Many public entities are putting everything on the Web without thinking through the ramifications of those actions."

Of course, a lot of personal information that can be found on the Internet is already in the open, having been printed in newspapers, school newsletters, yearbooks and the like. In addition, the government records that are moving online tax assessments, court documents, voter registration are already public.

But much of that kind of information used to be protected by "practical obscurity": barriers arising from the time and inconvenience involved in collecting the information. Now those barriers are falling as old online-discussion postings, wedding registries and photos from school performances are becoming centralized in a searchable form on the Internet.

"Google and its siblings are creating a whole that is much greater than the sum of the parts," said Jonathan Zittrain, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. "Many people assume they are a needle in a haystack, simply a face in the crowd. But the minute someone takes an interest in you, the search tool is what allows the rest of the crowd to dissolve."

As a result, people are considering how to live their lives knowing that the details might be captured by a big magnifying glass in the sky.

"Anonymity used to give us a cushion against small mistakes," Mr. Brin said. "Now we'll have to live our lives as if any one thing might appear on page 27 in two years' time."

Waqaas Fahmawi, 25, used to sign petitions freely when he was in college. "In the past you would physically sign a petition and could confidently know that it would disappear into oblivion," said Mr. Fahmawi, a Palestinian-American who works as an economist for the Commerce Department.

But after he discovered that his signatures from his college years had been archived on the Internet, he became reluctant to sign petitions for fear that potential employers would hold his political views again him.

He feels stifled in his political expression. "The fact I have to think about this," he said, "really does show we live in a system of thought control."

David Holtzman, editor in chief of GlobalPOV, a privacy Web site, said that the notion of privacy was "undergoing a generational shift." Those in their late 20's and 30's are going to feel the brunt of the transition, he said, because they grew up with more traditional concepts of privacy even as the details of their lives were being captured electronically.

"It almost gives you a good reason to name your kid something bland," Mr. Holtzman said. "You are doing them a good favor by doing that."

1 | 2 | Next>>

E-Mail This Article
Printer-Friendly Format
Most E-Mailed Articles
Single-Page View

Wake up to the world with home delivery of The New York Times newspaper.
Click Here for 50% off.

Home | Back to Technology | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company | Permissions | Privacy Policy
E-Mail This Article
Printer-Friendly Format
Most E-Mailed Articles
Single-Page View

Timothy M. Shaffer for The New York Times
MISTAKEN IDENTITY - Sam Waltz Jr. of Wilmington, Del., says that a woman whom he met online ran a Web search on his name and decided that they were incompatible. They ended up dating, after he explained that she had confused him with his son.

Subscribe to Circuits
Sign up to receive a free weekly Circuits newsletter by e-mail, with technology news and tips and exclusive commentary by David Pogue, the State of the Art columnist.

Recent Articles

Defensive Strategies: How to Limit Search Exposure (July 25, 2002)


Computers and the Internet
Electronic Mail
Create Your Own | Manage Alerts
Take a Tour
Sign Up for Newsletters

Circuits: How Electronic Things Work

Price: $29.95 Learn more.

You can be the first to know about promotions, offers and new products from select advertisers. Click here to sign up.

Search Sales
Search Rentals
Find Commercial Space
Mortgage & Moving Services
Mortgage Quotes
Moving Quotes
City Comparisons
Mortgage Payment Calculator
Presented by