Earlier this winter Google quietly without as much as the slightest press release disbanded its reverse phone lookup tool. This is despite a considerable increase in popularity over the use of such a tool and the fact that it was Google’s inaugural extra-search feature some years ago. When pressed Google said the decision was based on the combination of the volume of complaints they received from people upset they could find themselves, and the lack of advertising profit they were receiving from keeping the tool in operation.
Perhaps it was the super-celebrity status of Google that incited the uproar. Not only are there several other online entities offering the same service, but ones are continually coming into existence and the service itself seems like one people are more than happy to use. While allowing you to be listed in a phonebook has its risks and benefits, so does having said information available to be searched for in reverse. Neither seems any more risky than the other. I’m honestly trying to figure out what was so upsetting to Google users about finding out someone can look their phone number up and find their listed name and address.
This phonebook-in-reverse technique was a dream of many people for years, especially in the limbo period between the advent of digital number-recording telephones and ones that can keep track of the details of the call. Many people still only see the number of a missed call, which is a tantalizing piece of information when you’re dying to know who called. But the idea that your anonymous number can lead someone to your name and house address is apparently more frightening to individuals who have no problem with their name and addresses being available to the public and leaving the potential for folks to find them and call them.
The phenomenon has legal precedent albeit international, in the courts of Australia in the early 2000s. The Telstra telecommunications company was sued in Australian federal court by users upset over the release of software that was enabling people to access a reverse telephone directory. The judges ruled in favor of Telstra when it was established the information that could be obtained was not different enough from the information that could be found via traditional telephone directories.
Why are people so put off by the idea of reverse phone lookup? It’s no different than traditional means of looking up individuals and entities and it comes in way more handily when you think about. Traditional phone directories, even those online, are typically just transferred from old analog reams of data. The numbers you find that way are typically out of service, because not only are you unlikely to find any information linking someone’s home address to their cell phone, the numbers you do find could be ones out of a directory that was a decade old. Whereas a strange number that called you is definitely an active number, and not only that, there really is no other way of finding the information unless the number is on a website and can be found via Google. Traditional directors have countless alternatives, but reverse directories are pretty much the only way to get details on a phone number.
My guess is that what it comes down to is that people really like the anonymity of the telephone number. These folks that are outraged at Google and friends for giving out what in no way could be considered private information (if the number or name is listed in the phonebook) are really more upset about the prospect that their ability to phone people undetected is less likely to be successful. Honestly, if you can think of a way that someone could abuse this service anymore than they could abuse the ability to find you in a phone book, that doesn’t involve you behaving mischievous to drive them to want to find it, you let me know.