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Google feature prompts discussion

Reverse lookup feature poses safety concerns
Wednesday, December 10, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:06 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

Some parents and school officials are worried about how an Internet search feature is affecting personal safety and privacy.

Google, the popular Internet search engine that scans more than 3 billion Web pages, added a feature two years ago that allows users to type a phone number into the search bar at www.google.com and pull up the accompanying address.

But the feature goes a step further: It includes links to MapQuest and Yahoo Maps that identify the address, whether a private home or a business, with a star.

"The courts have routinely ruled that facts, like name and address, are not copyrightable and therefore not protectable things.”

Charles Davis, director, Freedom of Information Center

Safety concerns increase

As more people have learned about the popular search engine’s reverse lookup feature, some parents and teachers have become concerned for the safety of their children and students.

“We’re not happy that Google has made this feature so easily accessible,” said John Uhlig, media/technology specialist at Jefferson Junior High School. “We do have the ability to block sites, but I don’t know whether we will do that.”

A Google spokesman declined to comment on the record.

Dennis Murphy, media specialist at Rock Bridge High School, said he doubts the school district would block Google because it is a major search tool for students. However, he agrees that the reverse lookup feature could be a safety issue.

Google’s feature is not unique. There are several reverse lookup Web sites that allow Internet users to learn someone’s name and address by typing in that person’s telephone number.

Users can remove their information from the Google phonebook, but the search engine could still turn up phone numbers and addresses from other Web sites.

Google doesn’t provide access to phone numbers and addresses that are unlisted in phone books.

It's legal and common

Charles Davis, director of the Freedom of Information Center at the MU School of Journalism, said addresses are in the public domain and therefore are accessible to the public.

“The courts have routinely ruled that facts, like name and address, are not copyrightable and therefore not protectable things,” Davis said. “I don’t think you could stop this without directly legislating it. I’m not sure how this differs from any other sort of directory.”

In fact, there are several Web sites that include reverse directories. Many of the sites include links to maps as well. If they don’t, users can access maps online at sites such as www. mapquest.com or maps. yahoo.com if they have an address.

“Any industrious Internet user who wants to find out your address or your children’s names can do so pretty quickly,” Davis said.

There’s lots of information on the Internet people don’t want there, said Capt. Marvin McCrary of the Columbia Police Department. “The strange thing is, it’s legal,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”


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