thoughts and observations of a privacy, security and internet researcher, activist, and policy advisor

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What "the web" knows about him, online reporter finds out

Robert L. Mitchell from Computerworld did a fascinating research tour on what he could find about himself in all these databases. He started with ones that are available publicly or for a small fee. He then spent some money on data brokers and paid sources. Here is what he got:
Source: Government records
Information discovered: Full legal name, address, Social Security number, spouse's name and Social Security number, price paid for home, mortgage documents, signature

Source: Free people searches
Information discovered: Employer name, job title, age, month and date of birth, phone numbers, wife's name and age, historical addresses and phone numbers, personal e-mail address, identifying photographs, employment history

Source: Search engines
Information discovered: Age, phone numbers, Computerworld affiliation, Computerworld stories, blog posts, identifying photos, social network and nonprofit affiliations, editorial award

Source: Image search
Information discovered: Computerworld publicity photos, Flickr photos

Source: Social network search engines
Information discovered: Computerworld stories, blog posts, social network friends and co-workers

Source: Paid searches
Information discovered: Address history to 1985; real estate purchase dates, assessed values and mortgagors; 2004 property tax bill; nonprofit affiliations; Flickr account details; published stories; parents' names, address, phone number and first five digits of Social Security numbers; current and past neighbors' names, addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth and first six digits of Social Security numbers
Mitchell has a very good point when he concludes that authentication with several factors does not really help if it is only based on "what you know", and he even did some social engineering based on his own data he found, e.g. with his bank. The other interesting thing he discovered, not to my surprise: Much of the data was wrong, outdated, or wrongly combined with other persons with the same name.

But with all the information on how local governments fail to protect court records or housing documents they put online, how Acxiom and other data brokers have much more than they would tell you, or how much "the internet" knows about you, it's a bit sad that Mitchell only gives his readers "12 tips for managing your information footprint".

This is a political problem, and it has to be dealt with politically, not individually.


Blogger Robert Mitchell said...

I'm glad you liked the story, Ralf.

The Computerworld story as it stands took quite a bit of effort to put together. While I would have liked to have gotten into other issues, that would have made the story even longer.

As my wife said while I struggled to pull this into a coherent whole: "You have enough here for a book!"

But the necessary policy changes are a good subject for another story.

-- Robert L. Mitchell

29/1/09 01:42


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