How Much Does The Web Know About You?

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what do websites know about you Have you ever googled your own name or that of someone else? About two years ago I searched the name of a friend. I was hoping to find his travel photos, but what I discovered were his criminal records. On top of Google’s first page. Devastating!

I had heard his side of the story, but to see the actual documents, including every last detail of court hearings, was a sobering experience. When I finally overcame shock, it dawned on me what it meant for him. Not only had he lost his job, his possessions, most of his friends, and part of his family, but his past wouldn’t stop haunting him. The Internet never forgets.

My friend felt I had invaded his privacy by viewing those documents. While he might be right, I think that discussing the ethics of searching people on Google is honorable, but ultimately pointless. The Internet is a tool and humans are naturally curious. The reality is that there is very little privacy online. And although you are not always in control of what information about yourself ends up on the Internet, you can bet someone will find and use it. The best you can do is to watch like a hawk what the web knows about you and influence it to the best of your abilities.

What Do Websites Know About You?

The natural first step is to search Google for your name and variations of it. Don’t stop with the first page, but see what shows up on pages two and three as well. Those results could end up on the front page quicker than you would like them to.

what do websites know about you

And don’t stop with Google, either. If you really want to know what the Internet knows about you, dig deeper and use a variety of sources. Try all the main search engines, try search results as seen in different countries, search the invisible web, do an image search, use specialized search engines for people, social networks, or businesses, look for government records about yourself, and if you feel you must, try a paid service to squeeze out the last bit of accessible online information about yourself. Computerworld author Robert L. Mitchell wrote a revealing piece on his online self search.

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How Can You Influence Or Optimize Your Search Results?

It’s not only your own behavior that can influence your search results. More than a third of Earth’s population uses the Internet. That’s around 2,400,000,000 people. It is very likely that a few of them have your name. I share my name with at least four other people in the US and Europe. Their online activities affect my search results and vice versa.

Whether undesirable search results are your own fault or that of someone else, there are two approaches to fix them:

  1. Crowding out bad results by replacing them with good results.
  2. Removing bad results.

The crowding out technique is straightforward. Make sure your name is associated with sites that rank high on search engines and make those results highly relevant. For example create clean profiles with sites like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn and fill them with the information you want people to see about you. Rinse and repeat until you are happy with the search result.

One website that can help you bury bad results is BrandYourself. One of its co-founders couldn’t get an internship because he shared his name with a convicted drug dealer. His business partner was able to fix his search results and they subsequently co-founded BrandYourself, to help other people do the same.

what websites know about you

Removing bad results is considerably harder and in most cases impossible. You can delete content, contact site owners and ask them to delete it, or appeal to Google for the removal of search results. My colleague Ryan has dedicated an entire article to How To Remove False Information About Yourself On The Internet.

Why Does The Web Know So Much About You?

To understand why all this information about you is public in the first place, let’s return to the source. Where did it come from?

In most cases you willingly gave up your privacy and shared personal data yourself. Moreover, the web knows a lot more about you than is being made public. Your browsing habits for example are largely stored on your computer, but this information potentially is accessible to websites you visit. More importantly, however, Internet giants like Facebook and Google collect and store huge amounts of user data. While very little of this information is public, are you comfortable with them owning and managing your data? It’s time to look at what it is they know.

Google has two key tools that allow you to see what information is stored about you – Google Dashboard and the Activity Report. Google Dashboard summarizes all data stored with your account under all of Google’s services, including AdSense data, Gmail activity, YouTube activity, and much more. Google’s Account Activity Reports offers a monthly summary of account activity across many Google products. You can also download your data from Google.

what websites know about you

While Google’s data might be more sensitive, Facebook’s data is potentially more visible. The social network is notorious for violating their users’ privacy when introducing new features and making associated information visible to the public per default. Make sure your personal information isn’t accidentally public. That said, Facebook is responding to user concerns and they are constantly improving their privacy features. Like Google, Facebook allows you to download your data.

what websites know about you

How Can I Stop Them From Making My Data Public?

Some of the articles linked above show you how to manually tighten up privacy settings, especially in Facebook. One tool that can help you maintain your privacy across different online services, including Google and Facebook, is PrivacyFix. Using a browser add-on, the tool can analyze your current privacy settings in Google, Facebook and other websites. Following a scan, it highlights vulnerable areas, and suggests fixes.

what do websites know about you

How Can I Prevent Websites From Collecting Data?

Easy. Don’t use the Internet. Well, I see how this could be difficult. Maybe try not to share so much private data online and make it harder for websites to collect whatever you have to share. Disable cookies, browse anonymously, use fake user data, a disposable email address, and make sure your privacy settings are air tight and your passwords super safe. You are not only protecting your privacy, you are also defending your identity.

Conclusion

Privacy is a luxury. Not only can your privacy be invaded through data available online, you can also end up with a stolen identity and a tarnished reputation. Maintaining your privacy is tough because it is not always clear what information is collected, stored, and shared. While there are tools and services available that promise to help you stay on top of privacy settings, this is an uphill battle. Never assume you are safe, but always remain attentive, guard your personal data like the treasure they are, and double-check your own search results for leaks.

What do your search results look like? Did the web reveal any information you are worried about?

Image credits: Privacy Button via Shutterstock.com

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Comments (35)
  • dragonmouth

    Companies and individuals who perform personal searches as a business use software. “Crowding out” may defeat casual, manual searches but won’t defeat searchbots. If the data about you is somewhere on the ‘Net, they WILL find it, no matter how deep it is buried.

  • Manu Mathew George

    Really informative article. Something to keep in mind.

  • Ayush Mittal

    Morover Keep Consulting With Your Friends And Ask Them To INform You IF they Find Any Private MAtter as they thinlk of you
    And You Should BE thinking In SEnse Of Cyber Geek.Think What If Cyber Professional IS Searching IF You Could Search Till Your REsidence HE MAy Search Till Your Rooms Dont Take It In Wrong SEnse

  • Michael Alao

    One of the most succinct yet comprehensive and useful articles on web privacy I have seen.

  • AP

    I knew about the safegaurd techniques but clumsy using them, but after reading your article I will try to follow them.

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Affiliate Disclamer

This review may contain affiliate links, which pays us a small compensation if you do decide to make a purchase based on our recommendation. Our judgement is in no way biased, and our recommendations are always based on the merits of the items.

For more details, please read our disclosure.