I’m sure at one point or another, everyone has done the “ego search.” You go to Google, type in your name, and see what comes up about you. From what I’m told, there’s even a fun ranking system based on the number of pages that show up about you.
My real name has about a 6. My online alias is somewhere around 3300. Why?
For reasons simple enough: I started my online life under an alias so that one of my sets of parents (the estranged ones) would not be able to find me, but I could still write and do whatever I wanted with my friends over the internet. Fortunately, this worked out in my favor years later when it came down to internet privacy.
Unfortunately my real name did make it to the internet, and it came down to two reasons, one of which was my fault, the other was an uninformed elementary-school friend I had just found. I will discuss those reasons later on.
If for some reason you haven’t bothered to take a look at just what shows up for your name in a Google search, you should go do that right now. I’ll wait.
No, really…go do it.
What did you find? Were there any recognizable pages that were obviously about you? Did you put them there? Were they compiled by someone else? Was there any information on those pages that allowed for John Q. Stalker to help himself? If so, you probably need to either figure out how to protect the information on that page from prying eyes, or do what you can to take that page down.
What about those of you who didn’t find anything…Why do you think that is? Do you do all your online business via an alias? Even if you don’t go by an alias most of the time, try searching for that alias and others that you use. Then, try searching for that alias and your first name….then add your last name to it. What did you find? You probably found some pages where your “semi-anonymous” alias is linked to your real name. All it takes is one for the privacy to be broken.
I’m sure there are a handful of you reading this thinking “Nope, I didn’t find anything under my name, and I don’t really have an online alias that I use everywhere, and the ones I do have are so common and/or scarcely used that it would be difficult to pinpoint it to my real name.” Bravo to you for making it difficult to be found on the web. But there’s still one more thing…people searches.
Lately, there has been a boom of People Search Engines. Sure, they’ve always been around in one form or another, starting with the White Pages in the phone book, which got online, and then grew from there. But these days, the technology behind them is much more sophisticated. These days, they crawl the internet for publicly available information, and store it up, keeping an associative record of what they found, and who it’s related to.
So, if you think you’re safe from a Google Search, why don’t you give this a try…visit here and here, and just type in your first+last name, nothing else. Then scroll through the page until you find the entry that describes you. There’s about a 95% chance that it’s there. It may not be the most current, but the fact that the information they have is there is pretty unsettling in itself.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure if there is any way to remove the information from those sites – however, there are ways to stop them from getting more information.
This was just a glimpse at what’s out there. With some creative searching, all it takes is two pieces of information to find someone. With those pieces of information, the vault doors are blown off and all kinds of information is available about anyone who hasn’t taken the steps necessary to protect it: birthdays, family members, employers, addresses, home values, home floor plans, photos, license plates, drivers licenses, daily/weekly schedules & routines, favorite hangouts, alerts to the world about where they are (and aren’t), credit info, security questions for credit card applications, etc. Everything you could possibly want is potentially available online, if you know where to look.
Hopefully by the end of this series, you’ll have prevented a majority of this information from making it into the hands of stalkers, identity thieves, and serial cyber-bullies, while still being able to have an online life. Meanwhile, you should probably go check the privacy settings on every site that you update information to, and make sure that it’s either “not public” or “friends only.” If you use location-updating services (Foursquare, Gowalla, Twitter, Facebook, etc) make sure that you never check in at home, of all places, and that your updates are available to only friends, and that you only have ACTUAL friends in your list – not just whomever wants to follow you. I’ll cover each of these types of services in future posts.
The next post will talk about self-inflicted information leaks.