Suppose you wanted to find out what kind of neighborhood your ex was living in. Or maybe you want to get your list of prospects by checking out where they live and what their houses are worth.
"Whether or not you know it, there are places that are preserving, collating, and reconstructing detailed information about individuals," says Robert Lackie, associate professor and librarian at Rider University, who lists a half-dozen of these places on a website he created, www.kn.sbc.com/wired/fil/pages/liststudentpe3.html.
Are you worried yet? You should be. Lots of information about us, what is called a digital footprint, is waiting to be uncovered and perhaps used by anyone willing to look for it.
Lackie is speaking on "Detecting and Protecting Your Digital Footprint Online," Tuesday, February 5, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. For more information, call 609-924-9529 or go to princetonlibrary.org.
Lackie shares results from a December report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project about users' increasing awareness of their online digital footprints: Among Internet users, 47 percent have searched for information about themselves online, up from just 22 percent five years ago. Yet only 3 percent of these search regularly, and 74 percent have checked their digital footprints only once or twice. In fact, 60 percent are not worried how much information about themselves is available online, and 61 percent do not feel compelled to limit it.
"That surprised me," says Lackie, "because I get so many requests for help on this." And as for himself, he says, "I still fall into the area where I at least care. Maybe I don't always do it, but I know what's out there on me."
Lackie then provided me with a quick investigation of my personal details, starting with only my first and last name, state of residence, and his estimate of my age (which was far off) and ending with a close-up view of my house and yard as well as addresses and phone numbers of my neighbors. Here's how he did it:
ussearch.com: Lackie entered my name, estimated age, and state, and the site returned my name, along with my correct age and the city where I live.
whitepages.com: This site yields a variety of information if you enter the correct name, city, and state (although if a person has moved a lot, it may be harder to find what you want). It first provides your exact address, including ZIP code, phone number, and a map of your neighborhood. This is either a regular Google map or a hybrid that adds street names to a somewhat fuzzy, bird's-eye, satellite view from Google Earth. And of course you can also ask for driving directions from wherever you are).
At this point, Lackie said to me, "Now I can stalk you."
But we're not done yet with the cache of information you can get to from whitepages.com.
When Lackie clicked on "Find neighbors and home values for this location," he found not only the names and addresses of my neighbors, but also their home values from zillow.com, and mine. At worst, he found what we had all paid for our homes, with estimated increases since then.
maps.live.com: This site offers access to Virtual Earth, owned by MSN, which one-ups Google Earth, providing a clearer and more close up bird's-eye view of your house and those of your neighbors. There was a great view of my backyard as well as cars parked in my neighborhood. To see the whole neighborhood, you just have to move around your cursor.
Social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace: Lackie offers a hypothetical example about how old information on these sites can come to haunt you. Say a student at Rider has a picture on a Facebook page of himself and a friend hanging upside down on a dorm sprinkler system, smoking marijuana. A couple years later a potential employer checks his resume by doing a quick Google search, finds the Facebook link and the picture, and nixes him as a candidate because of it.
"A lot of executive recruiters are using Facebook to weed through job search candidates," notes Lackie. A 2005 survey by ExecuNet determined that 75 percent of executive recruiters used search engines to find information about their candidates, and more than 25 percent eliminated candidates based on information they found online.
To protect yourself:
Physically go into sites and clean them up.
Don't give any information you don't need to. For example, age.
Go to sites and ask that they remove information. The problem is that it can only be done site by site, and you can never tell how far the initial information has spread.
Start a professional blog to hide the old stuff. If there is information online that puts you in a bad light, left over from the wilder days of your youth, the best way to go is to clean it up. But if that's not possible, start a blog with information about yourself that you want people to see. The result will be that the old, self-denigrating material will get buried, because most people only look at the top few result pages.
Do regular checks online of your digital footprint. Say someone has your name and where you work. Searching on both, they may come up with notes from a meeting you attended and boom, there is personal information to be scooped up. For example, "I won't be available that day because I'll be out of town but here's my cell phone number in case you need me."
Don't leave evidence of your Internet activities on public browsers. "Your digital footprint is also where you always go on the Internet," observes Lackie. When you're on a public computer, he recommends that you never answer yes if the computer asks whether you want it to save your user name or password. Let's say you do and your browser has the autocomplete option (which will complete a website or word if you supply the first letter or so) turned on - it may not take too much work for the next user to find your bank and sign into your account.
The newest Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers have a tool that allows you to easily cover your tracks before you leave a computer. In Firefox, go to the Tools menu and select "Clear Private Data." On Internet Explorer, you can "Delete Browsing History" under Tools, and then deeper down under tools, you can select "Internet Options," then Content, and then stop the autocomplete function, which Lackie recommends.
Don't use the search engine offered by your Internet provider. Lackie is concerned that the company may then link together your personal information and the cookies that show where you have searched on the Internet.
Use a specialized company to protect your information. If you're willing to pay for someone to clean up behind you, suggests Lackie, try LifeLock at www.lifelock.com. Lackie cautions that his session will just be teaching attendees "how to clean up digital dirt a little." He will not be teaching people how to protect themselves on identity theft.
Lackie, one of 10 children, was born in Delaware. His father worked in the stock area at Woolworth's, but then got laid off. Lackie's parents sent him and his twin brother to Maine to live with his mother's parents.
While he was in middle school, the family moved to Darby, Pennsylvania, where his father got an associate degree at the Computer Learning Center. As class valedictorian, he was scooped up by Conrail as a computer programmer.
Because Lackie's parents couldn't afford to send him to college, he joined the Air Force at 17, and was stationed in England and South Carolina.
Lackie got three associate degrees while in the military: a general one from the University of Maryland, and then one as an aircraft maintenance technician and another in instructional technology at the College of the Air Force. In 1992, he got a bachelor's in liberal arts from the State University of New York, and then took graduate courses at Charleston Southern University, where he got a library graduate assistantship.
Realizing that his experience teaching and his computer skills worked well in a library setting, he decided to do a distance education master of library and information science through the University of South Carolina, completing the degree in 1996.
Lackie worked two years as a librarian at Charleston Southern and in 1998 decided to take a job at Rider University as an instruction and reference librarian, because he wanted his wife and son to get to know his family in the area. He added his master's in curriculum, instruction, and supervision from Rider in 2000. Whether it is his last degree is yet to be seen.
"My parents wonder if I'll ever stop," he says.