Engineering for practical obscurity

David Weinberger reports another undocumented Google trick: a quoted phone number (without hyphens) yields name, address, and maps. Although this is not really any different from what has been doing for some time, we nevertheless find these demonstrations -- as David says -- scary.

Back in August, there was a flap when it was discovered that voter registration records in New York, which are public information, were accessible on the web. The term "public" turns out to be highly loaded:

"Historically, court records have been presumptively open to the public," said Judge John W. Lungstrum, chief judge of the Federal District Court in Kansas, who headed the judges' committee. "On the other hand, because most people didn't bother to go down to the courthouse to rifle through the files to see what allegations might have been made against their neighbors, the result was only people with a true interest in the matter ever bothered to access the material. We had to wrestle with the loss of practical obscurity." [ ACLU Newswire]

It's tempting to say that practical obscurity is a necessary casualty of the evolving Internet architecture. On the other hand, as Lawrence Lessig likes to point out, that architecture can express differing sets of values. I'm not sure practical obscurity is a value, on balance, because then the right to access information is skewed in favor of those with the means (time, money, influence) to overcome the barrier of obscurity. But assume a consensus that it is an important value. How would you engineer for practical obscurity?

The link between phone numbers and other personal data is an especially interesting test case. Consider the ENUM initiative, for example, which seeks a mapping between telephone numbers and the DNS. Some argue that this is another flawed top-down X.500-style effort. Of course, as Google and Switchboard demonstrate, the convergence of telephone directories and Internet directories is going to happen, one way or another. If we were to decide that values such as "practical obscurity" ought to be woven into the infrastructure, it strikes me that a DNS-oriented approach might make sense.

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