Little Brother Is Watching You

George Orwell warned about Big Brother. I am Little Brother.

It started innocently, a month ago, when a company called Digital Directory Assistance sent along a review copy of its CD-ROM program, PhoneDisc PowerFinder. It's a national phone directory, packing more than 91 million listings onto five CD-ROM disks. The result is that you can find almost anyone and any business no matter where they're located in the United States.

That's fun stuff, especially for a journalist. I searched each disk and confirmed there are no Belsies other than my immediate family listed anywhere in the country.

Then I found that the program allowed searches by address. I typed in my address and found it listed all the neighbors too. Hmmm. I tried the address of a colleague and found the names and numbers of his next-door neighbors. Pretty soon, I was out of control, tracking down the neighbors of friends, family, and any colleague who called.

I became Little Brother.

Some of the listings were out of date, of course, and there were some curious omissions. (If you have an unlisted number or have ever asked not to be on a catalog company's mailing list, you're probably not included.) Digital Directory claims only 80 percent to 85 percent accuracy. Nevertheless, the information once available only to the government and large marketing companies now can be had by anyone who shells out $190 for the program.

Steven Miller, who sits on the national board of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, worries about the variety of such Little Brothers: from employers who carry background checks a little too far to con artists who abuse the technology. In some cases, thieves have gotten credit-card numbers and enough other personal information to impersonate an individual and run up thousands of dollars in bills.

The solution, Miller says, is legislation. ``We need strong national privacy-protecting policies,'' covering not only government data but the information collected by the private sector as well, he says.

New laws would address the abuses of the few. I wonder about the practices of the many. As more businesses gain access to information tools, more Little Brothers will spring up. PhoneDisc PowerFinder is such an important tool for info-hounds like me that I don't want to see it limited or banned. Of course, I'm not in the business of calling you to try to sell you something.

But what about the aggressive telemarketer? Or the out-of-town automobile dealer? Won't they start calling more often as they find out more about you?

That's the challenge of the Information Age. As more people use these tools to find out about us, we need more control over their ability to reach us.

Fortunately, the technology of control is catching up to the technology of information access. Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif., for example, is experimenting with a new system called the Wildfire Assistant. It's a computerized secretary that handles all calls by responding to your voice commands. One of its best functions is that it announces who's calling before you pick up the phone. You then have the choice whether to pick up or not.

A bare-bones, 24-user version of Wildfire Assistant costs $47,000. So it's not exactly at the top of my Christmas list.

But I think the desire for control will lead to other screening technologies. Perhaps it explains why so many people are signing up for the telephone company's Caller ID option, which flashes the number and (sometimes) the name of the person calling.

For the moment, I prefer today's low-tech solution for telephone screening. It's called the answering machine.

* Send your comments to America Online (LBELSIE), CompuServe (70541,3654), or via Internet (laurentb @delphi.com). And give my regards to the neighbors.

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