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Googling Contacts


Google puts your cards on the table


Michael Schrage calls it his ''Google Rule'': Before meeting a business acquaintance for the first time, he uses the search engine to familiarize himself with the person's work, which often makes the rendezvous go more smoothly.

Because the information is usually public, no one has yet confronted him about how he gets it. But that's not to say the subject of ''Googling'' hasn't made for any uncomfortable moments. One time, a woman he was seeing said she had looked up Schrage's name on Google before the date.

'My immediate reaction was, `Oh, my God,' '' said Schrage, a Manhattan- and Boston-based author and research affiliate at MIT's Media Lab. 'My second reaction was, `What did she read, information about me as a person or my work?' ''

In this age of Googling, it's all fair game. Searching on a phone number could bring up a name, address and a link to an Internet map of your home. It may also include your personal Web page, Web log postings, class-reunion biography, messages posted on bulletin boards and on-line resumes.


It's the flip side of cyberconvenience. Computer users value Google for what it reveals about others but worry about what it may reveal about them.

Privacy concerns were raised two years ago when Google began its PhoneBook service. Google argued that it was simply taking publicly available information and putting it to its own use. Indeed, other websites had been doing the same thing.

But it's perhaps the most basic example of how ease of information has come at the sake of relative obscurity. Before the Internet, you could get the same information by looking up a person's name in the phone book and finding the address on a map.

''You had to do a lot more footwork before,'' said Jayne Hitchcock, an Internet privacy and cybercrimes consultant and president of the Maine-based group Working to Halt Online Abuse. ``You had to go to these places in person, but now you don't have to anymore.''


The Google PhoneBook feature caused a small stir because of the search engine's reputation as a mainstream site that's much more frequented than Switchboardcom or others that provide similar information.

A Google spokesman said the site received few complaints, and it does allow users to remove their listings from its search engine by clicking on the phone icon next to their names and numbers and filling out an online form.


But Hitchcock said that the same information would still be on other online phone directories and that removing listings from those sites would be pointless since the phone companies send out new, updated databases yearly.

The only way to remove your phone listing from such sites is to get an unlisted number, which some are hesitant to do because it requires notifying contacts of the new number, Hitchcock said.

Part of Google's power is that it is the most popular search engine among U.S. Web users, according to May figures provided by comScore Media Metrix to the website But Google is fighting to maintain its hold as Yahoo, and Microsoft try to make gains in the search engine market.

The idea is to attract legions of users who have myriad reasons for searching online.

Lisa Hagen, the manager of the upscale Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles, said she uses Google to research the lives of every new client. For example, if a guest is passionate about race cars, the hotel staff will arrange for tickets to an exotic car show in town.

Schrage, the author and MIT research affiliate, said Google had helped him solidify business relationships but that he never uses it to look up personal contacts for fear that it might prejudice him.


Of course, there are pitfalls.

Amy Vecchione, 45, of Glen Ridge, N.J., was recruited in 1999 to work for an Internet software company in San Francisco. Upon arriving, she was questioned about her involvement with an online newsletter called Swine Line, dedicated to a band called Pig. She found out that it was a different Amy Vecchione, but she wondered if that information would have influenced the hiring decision had the search been performed before she was offered the job (which she has since left).

Hitchcock, the Internet privacy consultant, said a friend of hers was on a first date when the man the friend was with asked about the friend's drunken-driving arrest, which he found via Google. That really upset the friend, Hitchcock said.

''Your name is probably going to end up on the Internet,'' Hitchcock said, ``if it's not there now.''

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