“Most people who have come recently to the web, say within the last two or three years, have no clue what the Internet is and what it’s capabilities are. Especially if they stay in their little chosen boxes. Four easy steps and they have a blog and a Twitter account and a MySpace page and maybe a Facebook profile… well two easy steps and someone with $10 and access to the [online] Yellow Pages can find out how much you paid for your house.”
Part of a comment I left on my post… “Tweet Tweet I Want To Kill Your Children LOL”; Jan. 7, 2009.
Since I was thirteen I’ve been a stone picker, farm hand, hunting guide, street punk, daycare manager, bouncer, large-installation landscaper, photographer, award-winning newspaper columnist and reporter — mostly I covered Internet Privacy Issues.
From my About Page.
Welcome to the Internet. The kindergarten without supervisors.
Comment someone left in a forum.
There’s an assumption of privacy people have when using the Internet which has no foundation in reality. That who we are is kept secret from others by virtue of an invisible shield of civility and fair play.
But the Internet, despite the hype, is not some Neverland where the rules of nature don’t apply.
Ask Thordora, who recently had the police knock on her door because someone in another country misinterpreted the twenty words Thor wrote on her own Twitter account.
Very real people can get really pissed off and motivated by what you have to say… or, more likely, at how they interpret what you say. And, if you don’t know what you’re doing, they can find you.
We must treat the Internet as being just like any other public space. You don’t stand around on street corners handing out maps to your home or pictures of your children to strangers, so why have you been doing it online?
I’ve tried to make this point before, both here and on other blogs, but I don’t think I was taken seriously. So this time I’m offering proof and the means to do it yourself.
All of the sites I’m offering are well known and can be found using simple Google word searches. These sites are not secrets.
So basically… this is how people can find you:
Site used: American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN)
Unless it’s being used by a law enforcement agency it’s actually very difficult to find someone using just their IP address. Actually, for the average surfer it’s pretty much impossible. But your IP address will give someone clues. Like where you are.
An IP address can narrow a search for you down to a city. It’s not always accurate, the IP address left behind in a comment could be coming from your ISP, but it’s a tool. Where you’re located can be added as a search term to other searches to narrow the possibilities. If your IP address says Virginia, for example, I can now ignore any searches for your name from 49 other states.
Your IP address is actually a tool used by sites like Google and Yahoo to track the websites you visit. So… there’s that as well.
Quick Solution: search for “IP Blocker”, there are sites and software available which will mask your IP address. You can also search for “Hide my IP address”, you can even find information on how to change your IP address.
Site used: Site Meter
There’s a free service called “Site Meter”, it’s primarily a “blog counter” tool, but by putting a simple icon on your blog you can also track personal information from the people who surf through. Details like your IP address, the State and Country where you visited from, your operating system, how long you stayed, where you went and your Internet Service Provider.
It might not seem like much, but using your work or school computer to visit a website can lead a trail straight back to you. Each ISP has a name… Bell Canada, Verizon and Comcast are the most popular. But schools and companies, even NGO’s, can have their own servers with very specific names… like Reed College, or XYZ Health Systems.
So if you’re visiting a site from your university the person will have the time you visited, the IP address of the computer you used, which campus you were at and the name of your school. If you surf while at the office the person whose site you visit will have all the same information, they’ll just have an easier time using it because there won’t be three thousand students using the computer.
It might not seem like much… but what if you left a comment on that blog? Now the person has all the information from Site Meter, plus your email address and your username. All they have to do is match the time of the comment, with the time of your visit.
Quick Solution: don’t surf from work if your office is running it’s own ISP.
Have you registered a website?
Site used: Better Who-Is
This is one of the easiest ways to find someone. When bloggers decide they’re ready for primetime they go out and register their blog name as a dot com. But someone can just copy and paste the URL, perform a two-step “Who Is” search and get your real name, your address and your phone number.
The best way to keep your information private is to register your site through a proxy. It costs a few bucks, but your name and numbers stay safe.
I’ve come across a lot of dot com blogs where the person has merged their work information with their private blog. Bad, bad, bad idea. Not only can a complete stranger now contact you, but they can contact all of your clients. Even if you don’t have a contact list on your mega-blog, what if someone contacted you pretending to enquire about your services and asked for references?
It’s always best to have a separate site for any resumé or work activities. One site for play, another for the business card. Combining the two is priming yourself for a disaster.
Quick Solution: use a proxy to register your domain. The one I see most used is called Domains By Proxy, but you can find others by searching for “domain registry proxy”. Basically it will be their information listed instead of yours.
The first time I reported on these types of sites was way back in 1999. I called them “stalker sites”. If you have a phone number then your address, and even a map to your home, are online for anyone to find.
Think about it this way… if you handed someone in a bar your phone number it would take them less than a minute to have your home address, and if you’re in a city they could also have the bus route to your front door.
But that was ten years ago. Today, if you’re an American, I can still get your phone number and address… but if I’m willing to pay a small fee I can also find out how much you paid for your house, who your closest relatives are, what their addresses and phone numbers are, how much they paid for their homes, all the places you used to live, what warrants are outstanding, how many times you’ve been arrested, how old you are, how many times you’ve declared bankruptcy… all from one search on one site.
So there are good reasons why keeping your name off your blog would be a good idea.
There are similar sites keeping track of Canadians, although not quite as detailed… it’s a fairly safe assumption there would be similar sites in Europe as well. From what I understand Australians are so busy getting eaten by sharks that the rapid turnover in apartments and phone numbers makes these sites meaningless.
Quick Solution: if you absolutely must blog using your real name, pay the extra ten bucks and keep your phone number unlisted.
Site used: Google
The entire universe can be found in a search engine. If you have a Net presence you can be found on Google. Try it sometime. It’s called an “ego search”. Go through the first four pages and see what you can find. Then go to some random page, like eight or fourteen.
Now add additional keywords. Like your name plus the name of your high school, or the places you’ve worked.
Now Google the username’s you have for your blog, Flickr, Technorati accounts. Add some keywords, and see what comes up. Google your email address. Your email address is unique, so every time you’ve ever left your email address in a comment (“email me, we can chat”) or in a form (online petition) it becomes available through a Google search.
The most important test is a search for your name (first; last; first last) plus your username’s. You have to be aware if the two can be connected, or if one can lead to the other… especially if you’re leaving comments in heated discussions.
It’s not just the comments you have to be careful of, it’s the blogs you leave them on. Even if you’ve been extremely careful to maintain your privacy, it’s entirely possible you’ve left a comment on a blog written by a friend or relative who has, in their About Page or blogroll, information about you.
Quick Solution: email is absolutely 100% free. WordPress allows you to have as many username’s as you can think of, so do LiveJournal, Vox, Blogger, FaceBook, MySpace and pretty much every other social network ever created. Have a handful of email addresses and usernames, and use them in specific places.
Site used: Yours
Be very careful what links you place in your blogroll. If you’re doing your best to keep your private information private, what’s the point if your blogroll includes a link to your personal Facebook page? Or to your brother’s blog about his childhood memories of mom and dad? Or to your bridal registry?
Quick Solution: check your blogroll.
Internet Archival Project
Site used: The WayBackMachine
Along with personal privacy the other huge misconception about blogging is that by using some mystical universal force what we write will be kept secret, or if we delete something it’s gone forever. Well… you’re wrong. Taa-daa.
There are websites dedicated to archiving the Internet. The entire Internet. Everyday. The largest of them is called The WayBackMachine, and it has archives going back to 1999. There’s a six month lag, but whatever you wrote today, yesterday and last week will be available for free on their site in a searchable format… along with the other 85 billion web pages they’ve archived — that’s two petabytes of data and it’s “currently growing at a rate of 20 terabytes per month”.
Google also has a program called ‘Google Cache’ which will let someone find your deleted work, but it’s a short term thing.
Quick Solution: you can contact The WBM and ask them to not archive your material, and to delete your files. But the process takes some time.
How It All Works
Each site, on its own, is mostly harmless… without specific information each site, on their own, is actually pretty much useless.
But take the piece you have from one, and place it in another and just follow the trail. Someone leaves a comment on your blog (firstname.lastname@example.org). Take the time they commented and match it with Site Meter, which gives you the name and URL of the organization where they work (XYZ Health Services), go to their about page and maybe there’s a list of employees. Find the one which matches the email they left with the comment on your blog.
Suddenly anonymous “bettysue42” becomes Betty Smith, chief administrator at XYZ Health Services in Canton, Ohio. And now you’re only one step from having Betty’s home address and phone number… plus all the other cool stuff, like her bankruptcy records and who her family members are, and where they live.
Now take her name over to Facebook… if she has an account now you have her photo. This process goes on and on and on. And people’s identities have been uncovered using exactly the process I just described.
I hope I’m making my point because, like I said, my friend Thordora had police officers knocking on her door just a few nights ago over a misunderstanding on her Twitter page.
Someone in Pennsylvania started a process which ended with Thordora’s two children standing in their pajamas in front of two Canadian police officers, explaining how their mother never hurt them. The police found her because Thordora had a link to a wish list in the sidebar of her blog.
I really don’t want to panic anyone. Really. I just think we need to be aware of what’s going on around us.
This is the 200th post published on Salted…
but I don’t look a day over 127.