Commentary | Feb. 22, 2010

Finding Yourself: Have You Googled Yourself Lately?

By 432 WG AT/FP Chief, 432d Wing Anti-Terrorism & Force Protection

In today's internet and information-driven world, many of us take for granted how much information is literally a few keystrokes away. For example, if you're craving Ethiopean food but aren't sure where to find some, it's as simple as opening up Google and typing "Ethiopean restaurants in Las Vegas," then voila: right before your eyes, you now have a complete list of restaurant choices, along with addresses, contact info, reviews, directions, and even menus. But what if you're looking for someone, not something--is it still that easy? In short, yes ... and easy is an understatement.

When was the last time you Googled yourself? This may sound like a strange piece of advice, but if you've never tried to find yourself on-line, you should seriously try it sometime ... and be forewarned, you might be surprised at exactly how much personal information is publically available. To start, try typing your name in Google. If that brings back too many results, try narrowing down the search by specifying your current city or hometown. You may stumble across things you hadn't thought about in years, such as being mentioned in a newspaper article, or a police blotter.

Have you ever used a credit card? Merchants regularly sell credit card data (to include name, billing address, and date of birth) to third-party companies, who in turn sell that info to other merchants. Ever wonder how Hickory Farms, Publisher's Clearing House, or that company that sells personalized T-shirts and hats (i.e., "Fink University") found your address? They bought it from Amazon.com when you bought that "Magic Bullet High-Speed Power Blender" for your girlfriend for Valentine's Day.

These same third-party companies that sell to merchants also sell to companies like Intelius, who specialize in searching for and compiling vast amounts of publically available records into one easy searchable database. For less than $50 dollars, you can retrieve almost anyone's full name (and any aliases or previously used names), date of birth, social security number, current and previous addresses, phone numbers, list of relatives, list of neighbors, current income, property records, utility records, criminal and civil court records, county tax records, marriage/divorce records, and in some municipalities, a list of police records (to include speeding tickets, parking violations, or any other instance where police made contact with you).

Have you bought a house recently? You're probably listed on sites like Blockshopper Las Vegas, which publically lists information such as the home address, value, who purchased it, what the taxes are for the house, school district information, the ownership history of that property, and in some instances, which banks were used for the mortgage.

Do you have a MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, or other social-networking account? If you think the information you upload is for "friends-eyes" only, you're sadly mistaken: there have been several instances in the past year where privacy settings were drastically revised and pushed out to users, with the default privacy setting set to "open for public viewing." If you type in "MySpace" or "Facebook" and your name in Google, one of the first links that pops up will probably be your page ... even if your settings are set to "private." And remember: private posts (and pictures) you link to a friend's publically-available page are, in fact, publically-available (and searchable).

The down side to living in the information age is there are literally hundreds of companies that actively seek, store, sell, and share your "public" information. However, there is a light at the end of this tunnel. Websites such as the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse have sprung up to provide free guidance on how to remove your information from many of these companies' databases. While the current work-around to "opt out" of the most common database searches involves contacting each of the 100+ companies directly, having all of these companies' contact information in one place is a step in the right direction.

By knowing what kinds of information are out there, you can take steps to minimize your internet footprint. Also, by realizing that "private" and "personal" information isn't always private or personal when it comes to the internet, you can better control what you share with the masses through your Facebook circle of friends. Finally, if you haven't Googled yourself lately, give it a try--you just might find yourself.