Fears, abuse accompany proliferation of Internet maps
Friday, December 19th 2003, 12:00 am
News On 6
Serial killer Maury Travis used an online mapping service to show a newspaper reporter where he dumped a body. A former Las Vegas exotic dancer convicted of stalking and harassing her ex-lover posted a map on the Web with directions to the married man's home.
Internet mapping services are powerful and simple: Type a phone number into Google or other sites for a map with door-to-door directions. Finding someone has never been easier.
Now those resources are provoking a backlash. Spooked people worried about stalkers or worse are striking their particulars from phone and Internet listings.
Count Sonjia Kenya among them.
The 30-year-old is no stranger to the Internet but was stunned recently to learn how easy it is to go online and get directions to her front door. All it takes is her phone number.
``I was appalled and petrified as a single woman living in New York,'' Kenya said. She vows never again to give her phone number to potential suitors.
Many home addresses are attainable through a variety of public records and telephone listings. As well, reverse directories that let someone look up an address by phone number have been available at libraries or for sale commercially for years.
But many Internet sites that gather that kind of data now make it possible for fast, do-it-yourself desktop sleuthing, some for free and some for a fee.
Search engine provider Google Inc. added a phone number-map lookup feature more than two years ago.
There's also FindPeople.com, WhitePages.com and Switchboard.com, among others. If the sites don't have a direct link to a map, users can go on their own to such free sites as Yahoo! Maps, MapQuest, or Microsoft Corp.'s MapPoint. Tens of millions of people use those mapping services each month to help them get places.
Navigation Technologies Corp., which supplies the digital roadmaps used by those Web sites, has seen revenue more than double in three years, to $165.8 million in 2002. It is expected to top $200 million this year.
The Internet features are convenient tools for everyone, whether to look up a long lost friend or relative _ or with malicious intent.
Earlier this month, Steven Sutcliffe of Manchester, N.H., who had been fired by Global Crossing Ltd., was convicted of identity theft and use of the Internet to threaten company executives. He had created a Web site that included employees' Social Security numbers and maps to some of their homes. Sutcliffe, who represented himself during the final weeks of trial, had told the jury he ``was just publishing information.''
An animal rights group, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, has posted on its Web site point-and-click map listings, including the home addresses of executives and affiliates of England's Huntingdon Life Sciences Ltd. The tactic is legal under free-speech laws but has coincided with a rise in protests outside the homes of people connected to Huntingdon, prompting dozens of firms to sever their ties with the research lab.
By all accounts, however, the popularity of Internet maps has more to do with benefits than sinister uses.
Online maps and driving directions have become a must-have for business Web sites as more consumers treat the Internet as an information appliance, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
``For a lot of people now, especially those with broadband connections, the first place they go to for information is online,'' Rainie said. ``But people are still warming up to the idea that lots of information about them is online.''
In a 2002 survey, Pew found that one in four Internet users have typed their own names into a search engine to see what information about them is on the Web. And a quarter of those people were surprised by how much data about them was online, Rainie said.
People who want to make their phone and address data less accessible on Internet directories should ask their local phone company to keep their information out of both the local phone book and 411 directory assistance.
But doing so doesn't guarantee erasure across the Internet because databases cull other public records, too.
Privacy concerns have led a ``small number'' of people to request removal from the Google phone number-mapping feature, said Google spokesman David Krane. He would not say how many have done so.
After Kenya got an e-mail alerting her to the feature, she immediately filled out the Google form to get delisted.
But then Kenya turned around and used the same tool and other online features to check on a man who had asked her out.
``I'm upset that it intrudes my privacy,'' said Kenya. ``But at the same time, I'm trying to get as much information as I can from the Internet.''