Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The miracles of the Internet--and its dark side

I never cease to be amazed by the miracles of the Internet. Last week, for example, I received an e-mail message from some one describing herself as "a young researcher living in Manhattan who's desperately curious about [a] recent purchase."

The lady had bought what she describes as a "unique, vintage set of scissors and letter opener." She said she is trying to learn the set's manufacturer. All she knows is that the set was originally purchased from Goldsmith Bros., a New York office supplies store that was once the nation's largest retailer of stationery products. It has been out of business for many decades.

"If you know of anything that could help, such as the names of some manufacturing companies Goldsmith Bros. may have purchased from, or the location of some contemporaneous Goldsmith Bros. catalogs," she wrote, "I would genuinely, sincerely appreciate the help."

What does all this have to do with me?

"I Googled around a bit," she explained, "and one of your old blog entries came up." She referred to a story I posted nearly two years ago about having had a job as an office boy with RKO-Radio Pictures' publicity department in the early 1940s. The story told that the highlight of my brief "career" was delivering a bottle of whiskey to Lucille Ball in her Manhattan hotel room. At the time, the famed actress was visiting New York to promote a new movie.

In the piece, I mentioned that I had previously worked for Goldsmith Bros. for several months, starting out as a 16-year old delivery boy and being promoted to shipping clerk and--after graduating from high school--becoming a salesman.

That was it!

I do not understand how the lady seeking information about her vintage set of scissors and letter-opener connected with me. Out of curiosity, I checked Google and found no reference to Goldsmith Bros. under my name and no listing for the now-defunct store. But her inquiry vividly demonstrates how the Internet has become an extraordinary source for information-seekers. In this case, unfortunately, the lady has yet to obtain the information she seeks.

The miraculous nature of the Internet, however, has a dark side: the loss of personal anonymity. Even people who are unfamiliar with computers and the Internet are vulnerable to the exposure of sensitive personal information.

Out of curiosity and possible boredom, I have gone to Google and other search engines, typing in names of old acquaintances with whom I have lost touch just to learn what has happened to them. In a few cases, I was saddened to learn that the subject was no longer alive.

On a couple of occasions, however, I have been startled to find personal and embarrassing information about the subject. The person would be shocked to know how such information has become easily accessible to the public because of the Internet.

One case involved a man I casually knew as a boy. We grew up in the same apartment house but were not friends, largely because he was several years younger than me. Indeed, I do not recall that he had any play mates. He was a shy, reclusive kid who was regarded by the neighbors as a "Momma's boy." He was an exceptionally brilliant boy, disinterested in athletics but consumed in school and books. Now I was curious to know whatever happened to him.

I typed his name into Google and learned that he had become a psychiatrist. His surname is an uncommon one so I was confident that I had the right person. A legal document, derived from the public record, came up in my search, disclosing that his license to practice medicine had been revoked. No reason was provided. Another item revealed that he had continued practicing medicine without a license and was heavily fined. Again, no explanation. There were no subsequent references to indicate his current status.

I had a similarly disturbing experience when I typed in the unusual family name of some one I knew in school. Among the items that showed up was a reference from the public record to a woman bearing the same surname. I do not know whether she is related to my former school mate. Surprisingly, my search uncovered a case that resembled that of the other man.

The woman had been a social worker employed by a state welfare agency. She was dismissed from her job and had her professional license revoked because of what the public record showed was "an improper relationship with a client."

I wonder whether the two people I've written about are aware that their private records are so accessible to the public. The Internet is indeed a miraculous institution, enabling those seeking information about virtually any subject to satisfy their search so easily. As I have seen, however, the price can be the loss of personal privacy and anonymity.

But don't get me wrong. I am not advocating restrictions on the operation of Internet search engines. The Internet has become an integral element in my day-to-day activities, and I would be lost without it.

As a blogger, I regularly reveal personal, often sensitive information about myself, and I have not worried that it is so easily accessible to strangers. Perhaps I have unknowingly sought and found an inexpensive substitute for psychoanalysis.


Blogger kenju said...

Mort, thank you so much for the visit - and you can nitpick anytime you want. I appreciate knowing that Harbin is in China. The email I took the photo from said it was Russia, and I didn't check the facts before passing it along.

I think we all share your concern about personal information on the web. I have googled myself a few times and found others with my same name, and I wonder how many times we are confused with our namesakes.

Friday, March 07, 2008 4:26:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

I googled myself and found some socialite in Manhattan with the same name. - I'm not overly concerned at this point about my information on the internet. I might worry about it later after I get rid of the moles in my garden. ;-)

Scissors woman was obviously grasping at straws.

Saturday, March 08, 2008 1:59:00 AM  
Blogger Norma said...

I recently wrote about the google mapping feature and some other things that disturb me. About the women and the vintage scissors--I wonder if she called a library first?

Sunday, March 09, 2008 6:07:00 PM  
Blogger Judith Shapiro said...

When I google myself I'm always delighted to learn that I'm a college president. Oh, wait, that's not me. Darn.

My kids have been raised without the presumption of privacy that we once had. Obviously there are numerous cons (double meaning intended) but the pros far outweigh them, yes?

Thursday, March 13, 2008 12:17:00 AM  
Blogger 1000myths said...

When B.F. Skinner published "Beyond Freedom and Dignity"almost 40 years ago I doubt if he even dreamed that we would have anything like the internet or "The Patriot's Act" and the ensuing and notorious Homeland Security.

Now we live in our transparent world where almost everything about almost everybody can be dug up with Google.
Skinner's thesis in "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" was that with the huge advances in technology (and this was before, digital cameras, cell phones and the internet), plus the population explosion, we could no longer afford the luxuries of personal privacy, dignity and freedom of speech (among other things)

Are we better off now than we were in 1970? I'm not sure.

Nice to read you Octo.!

Thursday, March 13, 2008 5:53:00 PM  
Anonymous gel (Emerald Eyes) said...

This is a thought-provoking topic that is becoming more and more dinner table talk. I emphatically relate to your words below:

"Perhaps I have unknowingly sought and found an inexpensive substitute for psychoanalysis."

Currently, only part of my blog is on the internet due to backup/crash issues. I've been blogging for several years and noticed significant and gradual changes in what I chose to write or not write. I also find it interesting that your quote relates to the fact that you found two people in the psychotherapy field! Ironic.

Saturday, March 22, 2008 4:19:00 AM  

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