The Editor’s Desk: Scary new digital world

How the author found out more than she wanted to know about a complete stranger.

Starting in June of last year, I accidentally began finding out a lot about someone I don’t know.

The discovery came soon after I upgraded from a six-year-old Blackberry Curve to an iPhone 7. Because of reasoning understood only by Telus, it was less expensive for me to get a new cellphone number than retain my old one, so I was assigned a new number with a 457 (local) prefix.

Not long after that I began getting text messages and phone calls intended for “Margarita” (or Rita, as her friends call her). I found out her last name and when her birthday is, the name of her daughter (who appears to be forgetful; her pre-school teacher texted Rita on June 30 to say that her daughter had left a pair of shoes at school following the last day of class), learned the name of the southwestern Ontario city she lives in, and know that she likes shopping at a clothing store called Stitches, as she gets texts from them about upcoming sales on a regular basis.

I know what car dealership she has her car serviced at; found out last September that her daughter had entered Kindergarten and what the class would be up to next via text updates from the teacher; and know what dental clinic she uses (they sent out a very nice “Merry Christmas” message to all their clients in December). She also has at least one ex out there who still holds a torch for her; on her birthday I got a text from him saying “Happy birthday sweetie,” followed by emojis signifying a heart and a kiss.

I replied “You’ve got the wrong number,” and the ex came back with “Lol sorry. Must have got a new phone. Old girlfriend lol.” He must have forgotten to delete the number, though, because on August 21 he came through with “How’s it going?? I’m watching from the other side. I will come visit after the race,” followed by another kiss emoji.

Now on one level this is no big deal; the sort of thing that’s bound to happen when people change phone numbers, and everyone I’ve had to contact saying “You have the wrong person” has been apologetic. On another level, however, it’s disturbing. I know Rita’s first and last names, where she lives, her daughter’s name, what school she goes to and how old she is, and where Rita shops, gets her car serviced, and has her teeth cleaned; and I wasn’t even looking for any of this information. It just fell into my lap.

Imagine, then, what someone who was really determined to find out this sort of thing about another person would be able to dig up if they tried, and what they might do with the information. Suddenly all those warnings—which most people probably ignore as merely white noise—about protecting your identity online seem to have a bit more immediacy.

Who has your cellphone number? Why do they have it, and how are they using it? Receiving text messages from a store or your dentist or your child’s teacher sounds convenient and harmless, until something like what happened to Rita occurs. Suddenly all this information about you and your family is out there, and it’s going to—whom, exactly?

We’re still finding our way in this brave new digital world. Like Sgt. Phil Esterhaus used to say in Hill Street Blues, let’s be careful out there.

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