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I spy - follow the personal data trail online

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By the BBC'S Paul Myers

The internet is the most potent research tool the world has ever seen. With its powerful searchability and huge variety of sources it can present serious risks to an individual's right to privacy.

Monica Lewinsky discovered that anyone could build up a personal profile of her life by tracing the messages that she had sent to newsgroups before she was famous.

Monica Lewinsky explains why she believes her privacy was violated.  real 56k

Let's turn detective and see what we can find out about "John Smith". Despite his common surname the internet may be able to furnish us with his home address, telephone number and social status. If he is a keen internet user, then we may even be able find a photograph of him, discover his political views, hobbies, or sexual tastes.

Online Communities

If we know a few basic facts about John Smith we may be able to find out more by looking at the various online communities.

The USENET "newsgroups" system, is a way to send e-mail-type messages to public discussion forums. Reflecting interests as diverse as middle-eastern politics or foot fetishism, these forums are easy to tune into and can become frighteningly addictive.

There are about 30,000 newsgroups in active use. Additionally many websites now carry message boards - you can even create your own forum by visiting sites like Yahoo clubs.

What can we find out about someone by tuning into these communities?

Jeff RosenLet's say we know that John has access to the internet and is a fanatical birdwatcher. There is a good chance he is posting to a newsgroup called rec.birdwatching. Google collate newsgroup messages into a searchable archive stretching back to the mid-nineties.

"In Cyberspace it's as if we have a camera on our back following us around - recording our every move" Jeff Rosen  real 56k

John Smith may not realise that his every message to the birdwatching newsgroup is being stored. He may be mortified to find out that by simply clicking on his name in Google anybody can see the messages he has sent to other newsgroups. These might be just as mundane as his birdwatching messages, but with so many sexually and politically oriented newsgroups on offer, John's contributions could reveal a side to his personality that would normally be hidden - even from close friends and family.

Finding Homepages

Every internet service provider offers its users "free web space" - room on the internet to host their own websites. More often than not, these homespun websites are hypnotically boring but they do betray many personal details about their owners (usually just photos of the family, the pet dog and links related to the owner's hobbies).

Any budding net detective wanting to trace someone's personal homepage should look at their e-mail address and familiarise themselves with the ISP's homepage address format.

If John's e-mail address is: johnbirdsmith@aol.com
His home page address would be: http://members.aol.com/johnbirdsmith
If his e-mail address is: john@birdsmith.freeserve.co.uk
His home page might be found at: http://www.birdsmith.freeserve.co.uk

Cookies

Websites can store information about John Smith and build a profile of his tastes and interests each time he takes a trip around a site. This is done through using cookies. By recording information about him, they can be useful and save time, but they also enable websites to build consumer profiles of Johnís tastes and hobbies and then target information or pass it on to other related websites. It is possible to disable cookies but this can affect the performance of some sites. An application called 'Cookie-sweeper' enables John to view his cookies for individual sites and choose whether to keep them or not.

"Cookies... tiny electronic private eyes whose job it is to track your every move on the web and build a profile of you", Michael Lewis  real 56k

Who is Searching

If John is really serious about the internet, he may have registered his own "domain name" - john-bird-smith.com for instance. We can trace his registration details, often including home address and phone number by doing a "whois" search.

The "look up tools" on cotse.com allow us to see who owns john-bird-smith.com, to see which domain names have been registered by "John Smith" and to see which contain words like "birdsmith".

Tracing Home Addresses and Phone Numbers

The obvious way to find someone's home address is to look in the phone book. Teldir.com provides links to many online telephone directories available across the world.

The USA has more freedom of information than the UK. If John lived in the States and all we had was his phone number, we could trace his home address by doing a "reverse number search" at infousa.com

This service is not available for UK phone numbers, however 192.com will allow you access to a dazzling array of powerful search tools. Simply knowing John's home town would allow you to search the electoral roll to find out his full address and who he is living with.

This information can help you with further searches for phone numbers and information on the Web and newsgroups.

You could see if John has been involved in criminal activities by checking the online archives of his local paper. You can see if he's been made bankrupt by checking the "disqualified directors" database on the Companies House website.

Assessing Wealth

Finally, having found John's address, we can perhaps gauge his standard of living by profiling his local area. By entering his postcode, upmystreet.com will supply you with property prices and crime rates. You could even see if John has a swimming pool by accessing an arial photograph of his house at getmapping.com

US Public Records online

There are many resources dedicated to searching US public records online to find people - sometimes for the payment of a small fee. Databases can be found at www.knowx.com and www.pac-info.com

Protecting Your Privacy

The amount of online information that can be dug up on any individual is frightening. Many people reading this article will be quite rightly concerned for their own privacy.

There are a number of golden rules to follow if you are worried about being traced and profiled.

  • If you are considering contributing to online forums, avoid using your home e-mail address.
  • Register different free e-mail addresses for different forums. Never give out details about yourself that you want to see printed in a national newspaper.
  • Exercise your rights under the Data Protection Act to have personal information removed from online databases.


  • Internet links: the BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.



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