Oh, sweet privacy! You know: privacy — not to be confused with anonymity, which is what movie stars pine for during their third appearance on “Oprah.”
When you get right down to it, privacy is what it’s all about. Everything. It’s what makes life worth living; what allows you to drink milk straight out of the jug and scratch your armpit when you feel like it and read “Popular Mechanics” for 45 minutes while sitting on the john. As long as you’re not married, that is.
It’s definitely what America’s all about, all that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” business. The Bill of Rights? Written specifically to keep some Redcoat from rooting around in Thomas Jefferson’s underwear drawer. (“Aye, guv’nah! What do we ’ave ’ere? Looks like a copy of ‘Lassies in Powdered Wigs!’ He’s a bleedin’ pervert, he is!”)
With the rise of the Internet, however, a lot of things have changed. First: You no longer have to keep your secret magazines in the old underwear drawer — they’re all online (www. lassiesinpowderedwigs.com). Second, and more importantly: Privacy has become a thing of the past. Unless you’re a hermit living in a cave in the Ozarks who hasn’t seen the light of day in 40 years, chances are that if someone with a computer wants to find you or find out about you these days, they can. Sure, maybe not the whole “rooting through your lacy bits” part, but if someone wanted to and would, that’s just a car ride and a crowbar away.
We’re not just talking about guarding your social security number, either. In this day and age, the smallest bits of information — name, address, telephone number — are all a determined person needs to peek under the hem of your life.
For instance, let’s say I’m some psychotic, living in my grandmother’s basement, spending all day lounging around in her old girdles, surfing the Internet and eating Froot Loops. Further, let’s say I develop a fixation on, oh, I don’t know … Max Brantley, the editor of the Arkansas Times. It could happen. Max does have some inflammatory things to say from time to time. And while it would probably be considerably more fun to lurk after supermodels, this is for experimental purposes. Work with me here.
A cursory Google search of Max’s name turns up something of a treasure trove of information about his past: his 2000 “Gazette Project” interview with Ernest Dumas. Therein, by way of telling Dumas the part he played in the last days of the old Gazette, Max relates pretty much everything you’d want to know about his past — hometown (Lake Charles, La.) to grad school (Stanford) to what his mother did for a living (Betty Brantley, dietitian). While I know for a fact that it upsets Max that this personally revealing document ended up on the Internet (he understood it would only be archived in hard copy at the University of Arkansas), there’s an important point to be made, even in that. Eventually, whether we want it to or not, every bit of our ink-and-paper lives is going to swirl its way into the electronic ether.
Now that our stalker has a good idea of Max’s past, he could then go to whitepages.com, an online telephone book which features reverse address and reverse phone number directories for the entire United States. Type in Max’s name, and out comes “Max F. and Ellen B. Brantley, 3210 Edgerstoune Lane, (501) 663-6758.” Using the website’s reverse address search for “Edgerstoune Lane” produces phone numbers and addresses for all Max’s neighbors, including at least one children’s phone. From there, a trip to mapquest.com produces a map to Max’s house — the address overlain with a star, like a tiny bullseye — along with driving directions to his doorstep from anywhere in the continental United States and Canada (even the scenic route). With the address in hand, a little more searching at the Little Rock School District website for the correct school zone could — if Max’s kids were still school- age — tell you where they might attend. With Max’s birthdate, a new feature of the Pulaski County webpage can tell you his voter information: his political affiliation, when he last voted, and the location of his polling place. Moreover, a small fee and a visit to one of at least six satellite imaging companies (for the images published here, we used globexplorer.com) would land our no-count a recent, high resolution color satellite photo of Max’s house, taken from outer space.
Thanks to whitepages.com, our girdle-wearing malcontent has both Max’s name and that of his wife, Ellen. Even if he didn’t take a cruise by Edgerstoune Lane on trash day and rifle through their garbage, potentially finding a credit card number, social security number or bank account information, a Google search for Ellen Brantley turns up a lot of what a nutjob might want to know about her too: Wellesley grad (she went to school with Hillary Clinton, according to one website); J.D. degree from the University of Virginia; currently a judge for the Sixth Judicial Circuit, Division 16, serving Perry and Pulaski counties. The Pulaski County website provides both a picture of Judge Brantley and the address of her offices in downtown Little Rock.
In addition to the above information, bits and pieces of Max and Ellen Brantley’s private life would fall out from a thorough search like dust from a beaten rug: that they have two children, a son and a daughter, he a college student and she a financial analyst living in New York; still shots from Max’s appearance in the film “The Hunting of the President”; reams of information on Judge Brantley’s previous court decisions, details of Max’s speech to the UALR class on the Clinton presidency, audio clips from his Sept. 21, 1996, appearance on NPR’s “Whad’ya Know?” All a bit trivial, sure. But, to make an analogy, when it comes to crowbar-and-glove theft, it’s not the stolen television sets and DVD players that make you feel the most violated, is it? It’s knowing that someone, somewhere has run his or her fingers over the most trivial parts of your life.
After all that, with a credit card and a one-time fee of $49.95, our e-stalker could go to several web-based data mining services — like the one we used, intelius.com — and do a background search on Max Brantley. With that report, he could learn pretty much everything else: Max’s previous addresses for the last 20 years, a list of phone numbers and addresses for his neighbors, his criminal arrest record (though I was hoping for a little shoplifting or public drunkenness, Max was as clean as a choirboy), civil lawsuits brought by or brought against him, his daughter’s name (which can lead to yet another round of searching, which would no doubt turn up everything you’d want to know about her), as well as property ownership records for his house on Edgerstoune Lane, including latitude and longitude, a color satellite photo of the property, when where and how much his house sold for (including the document numbers you’d need to look up information about the sale at the county courthouse), how many square feet he inhabits, when the house was built, and how much he and his wife paid in property taxes in 2003.
In other words, the works.
OK, OK. Take a breath. As long as you (and Max) pay your bills, stay away from guys nicknamed “The Blade” and don’t join the French Foreign Legion while drunk, there’s a good chance that nobody is coming to get you. No need to sit up all night with a shotgun, eating instant coffee out of the jar with your ear to the door. Say it: “Nobody is coming to get me.”
The simple fact of the matter is: while the Internet has certainly made the lives of reporters easier by making information-gathering quicker, privacy — the kind of privacy that can be breached by using the Internet — was mostly an illusion to begin with. Reverse phone and address directories existed before Bill Gates was a microchip. The documents on your birth, childhood, house, education, car, property, lawsuits and bad behavior (and someday even your death) can be had at the courthouse, library or police station.
The truth is, there’s no mystery to most people. Most of us are honest and open, and like to talk about ourselves. As reporters and detectives the world over can attest, you can usually learn everything you ever wanted to know about a person and more by shaking their hand, buying them a cup of coffee and looking vaguely interested in what they are saying. In the end, we’re social animals. We want others to know what we know.
Still, it is disturbing. For my money — even beyond the maps and credit scores — the most unsettling bit of Internet-available information yet might be the satellite photos. Satellite photos? Call me crazy, but there’s just something Cold War-sinister about looking down on your own humble abode from space. It brings to mind death rays and dark men in smoky bunkers. It’s enough to make you search Google for Skull and Bones membership lists while wearing a tinfoil hat.
Sure, there’s nothing on the Internet you can’t find anywhere else. It’s public information, made accessible. Quickly accessible. The Internet makes it possible to go from knowing nothing to knowing a lot with just a few keystrokes. When it comes to studying “Moby Dick,” that’s fine. When it comes to personal information, however, it’s enough to give you that feeling that they always describe in movies, just before the slasher descends: “I feel like I’m being watched.”
If you let it, that kind of thinking can drive you crazy; make you start putting flour on the steps to check for stealthy footprints — make you start taping phone calls and mining the house with minuscule cameras.
There is an antidote, however — privacy’s kissing cousin: the belief in your own anonymity.
Just keep telling yourself: I’m not that interesting. I’m not that interesting. I’m not that interesting.