Sunday, January 01, 2012

Privacy: Introduction to Publicly Available Information

As the Internet grew over the last few decades, people and companies would make information publicly available without realizing how it can be exploited if used improperly.

Criminals have learned how to take advantage of this information by having computers crawl the public web looking for it.  For example, they first started looking for email addressees for sending SPAM, and later evolved into searching for other types of data.

Have you ever wondered how much can someone find out about you on the Internet?  There is an amazing amount of public information available about most people that they might not realize is there.

Below is a brief description of some of the more popular examples:

  • Do a web search on your whole name or email address and see what you pull up. 
  • There are companies that compile public databases into a central location, and sell that data.  This information is public (e.g. from tax records, DMV, etc.), so in most cases you can't request that you're information be removed.
  • There is also information that we publicly post through social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc.), that you might be making publicly available without realizing it.  
  • Go to a site called IPFINGERPRINTS, it will show the geographical location of where it knows IP address is located.  Companies regular use the IP address information to track the location of where visitors are located.  This information is generally used to more accurately target advertising for products and services.
    • Note: Depending on the service provider you're using, the location information may vary.

If you're wondering what you can do to protect yourself:

  • Without the right privacy settings on your personal and friend's accounts on any of the social networking sites, any information that is posted will be indexed and made publicly available.  Most of these sites use "public" as their default privacy settings, which means anyone can view it including the search engines.  If you don't want your data to be publicly available, learn to lock-down your privacy settings.
  • If you find information on a web site that is posted about you, you can contact the web site and ask them to remove it.  You do need to understand that in most cases there is nothing to force any company to remove information (this can vary depending on local or country laws).
  • Use common sense, it doesn't matter how good your privacy settings are, don't post information on any site, including social networking sites that you don't want other people being able to find out about yourself.
  • In general it's a good idea to lock down all your online accounts with strong and unique passwords.  Criminals have recently been targeting people's email and social networking accounts to target their friends, family and business associates with different types of scams.  For example, they pretend to be you and tell everyone you know that you're stuck in a foreign country and you need their help by sending money.

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