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Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel

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False Data Syndrome

Another insidious problem with this data sea is something I call false data syndrome . Because much of the information in the data sea is correct, we are predisposed to believe that it is all correct—a dangerous assumption that is all too easy to make. The purveyors of the information themselves often encourage this kind of sloppy thinking by failing to acknowledge the shortcomings of their systems.

For example, in 1997, the telephone company NYNEX (now part of Bell Atlantic) launched an aggressive campaign to sell the new Caller ID service to its subscribers. With the headline "See Who's Calling Before You Pick Up the Phone," the advertisement read:

Caller ID lets you see both the nam e and nu mber of the incoming call so you can decide to take the call now or return it later. Even if the caller doesn't leave a message, your Caller ID box automatically stores the name, number, and time of the incoming call. Caller ID also works with Call Waiting, so you can see who's calling even while you're talking to someone else. [5]

Clearly, NYNEX was confusing human identities with telephone numbers. Caller ID doesn't show the telephone number that belongs to the person who is making the call—it shows the number of the telephone from which the call is being placed. So-called "enhanced" Caller ID services that display a name and number don't really display the caller's name—they display the name of the person who is listed in the telephone book. If I make an obscene call from your house during a party, or if I use your telephone to make a threat on the life of the president of the United States (a federal crime), Caller ID will say that you are the culprit—not me.



[5] NYNEX advertisement, mailed to customers in Spring 1997.

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