How Much Does The Web Know About You?

Privacy Button   How Much Does The Web 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.

Google Name Search   How Much Does The Web 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.

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.

Brand Yourself First Page of Google Results   How Much Does The Web 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.

Download Google Data   How Much Does The Web 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.

Timeline to Public   How Much Does The Web 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.

privacyfix facebook   How Much Does The Web 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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35 Comments -

0 votes

Mikey Ja

This is insanely helpful and should be a must-read for everyone working online. Great article!

0 votes

Sri Vastav Reddy

wow tina,
u Nailed it this time,
Awesome Post..:)

0 votes

John Kirkpatrick

Some STILL believe that future employers will never search for them – everywhere.
All we can do is to keep showing them articles like this.
Son, are you paying attention?

0 votes

Tina Sieber

Exactly John. Employers now routinely do a search for applicants. And both employers and colleagues will definitely search current employees, either out of curiosity or because they want to dig up some dirt. It’s human nature.

1 votes

Lisa Santika Onggrid

As I mentioned in my comment, you should also look out for results made by others. Most of the times it’s just innocent blog posts telling about your experiences together, but we can’t close the probability someone is angry at you and purposefully writing bad things about you.

0 votes

Kyle MacDonald

Great article. Super helpful.

1 votes

Andrew Newey

I agree, but the simplicity of ‘crowding out’ unwanted results can prove to be fairly difficult sometimes.

0 votes

Tina Sieber

It’s definitely not trivial to crowd out undesired search results. Depends on what the result is.

0 votes

Scott Macmillan

Some very valuable advice and ideas on how to improve what others will learn of you.

0 votes

Bhupinder Dhanda

I know but i don’t know how to remove my info.

1 votes

Dana

I have been aware of many traps on the Internet but not to the extend you’ve described here. I am really grateful for this article and will gladly share it! Thanks a lot!

0 votes

SaapeXD MoHods

Well its better to use a random name / names on the internet! :D

5 votes

Ayush Mittal

You Could Use Them But Be Sure Not To Use Them For Wrong Purpose Or You Could Be ARRESTED For Cyber Crime.

0 votes

Clotilde/Craftybegonia

It’s scary! So much information floating around that a person can’t control. I love tips on how to keep as much of it as possible, safe.

0 votes

Aashish Kumar Shaw

this is really helpful

5 votes

Rani Karana

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7pYHN9iC9I

That video just shows how scary the internet might know you and how well someone can even know you before even seeing your face.

0 votes

Tina Sieber

Wow, that’s an amazing video. Thank you for sharing, Rani!

5 votes

Ayush Mittal

Reall Awsome Video Very Helpful Thnx For Posting It. Maybe It may HElp MAny Surely Me

1 votes

Lisa Santika Onggrid

I’ve nothing to worry about mine. Did regular search to see if anything’s wrong. On the other hand, I sometimes search one random friend’s name just for fun, perhaps discovering his/her blog, but most of the time I get much, much more.
One time they’re very surprised when I told them a lot of things I knew about them. Fortunately, nothing is devastating/tarnishing, but more towards obscure details in their lives. In one particular case, he never actually write/publish about himself, but his ex-classmates blogged about him and their schooldays.

5 votes

Ayush Mittal

You See You Are Not A Cyber Professional.But When A Cyber Professional IS On Search HE MAy Find A Lot Even IF YOu COyuld NOt Find Any So YOu Should BE Careful.Wish You Luck

0 votes

Lisa Santika Onggrid

Yeah, you do have a point, I suppose. Privacy is luxury once you step into the realm of internet.

5 votes

Ayush Mittal

0 votes

Junil Maharjan

The web knows you better than you know yourself.

0 votes

Eric Jay Palomar

this so helpful.

2 votes

dragonmouth

Very eye-opening article.

One bit of advice to EVERYBODY, especially those using social networks, DO NOT SPIILL YOUR GUTS ON THE INTERNET! Provide the minimum personal information necessary to register with ANY site. No matter how secure it claims to be. ANY site can be hacked, all it takes is a little bit of time.

0 votes

Patrick Jackson

I try my best to avoid leaving any online footprint, I have just lied big time! :)

0 votes

Tina Burquest

OMG, even my comments written on here are accessed through GOOGLE.

1 votes

Tina Sieber

Yeah, posting great comments on MakeUseOf using your real name is a good way to crowd out bad search results. ;)

1 votes

Lisa Santika Onggrid

You know the irony? After I start posting comments here the relevant search results of my name are buried under tons of MUO listings, including my own blog and my published articles, because of MUO’s high Google ranking.
I don’t regret it, of course. If anything, I’ve learnt how to maintain regularly so it stays on the top:)

0 votes

AP

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

0 votes

Michael Alao

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

0 votes

Tina Sieber

Thank you, Michael.

6 votes

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

0 votes

Manu Mathew George

Really informative article. Something to keep in mind.

0 votes

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.