For years I have struggled with where I sit in the online world in respect of privacy and social media. Having a Facebook profile for a whole decade, a Twitter account for 9 years as well as occasionally flirting with Instagram, Snapchat as well as WordPress blogs, I could never decide whether I am happier being open or private.
Although we hear of cyber attacks on major companies on an almost weekly basis and our personal details such as email addresses, names and date of births being stolen and sold to the highest bidder on the dark web, that has not been the main reason for my dilemma
Having grown up as a teenager without mobile phones and the internet, it has not always been like this. Today’s teenagers and early twenty something’s have grown up with a mobile device glued to their hands and know no different. So I remember a world of privacy where you never took a photograph of your meal or your alcoholic drink. When I was growing up, you took photographs on a non-digital camera and upon your return from holiday took the photographic film into a photo developing shop and waited a few days to see whether all those holiday snaps turned out ok. Many times you threw several photographs away because they were either blurred or too dark due to having no flash. None of today’s problems of re-taking the same picture over and over again until you are happy with it or struggling to decide which filter you prefer.
Here is my issue. Recently I conducted some open source research on a couple of people, all legitimate as part of a training course I am on and with the people’s permission. I had to conduct research on brothers who owned a company to see what information I could glean from the world wide web in a couple of hours. The task was to find out about their company, their clients, the brothers private lives, where they live, dates of birth, cars they drive and so on.
What you have to understand is that Google is not the only place to find things out. Google only searches the web pages it indexes and thinks are useful. There are many other search engines that do slightly different searches. This is why I could not understand why people asked Google to delete what information it had on them for privacy. Google is just one skin of a very large onion, take that information away and you can still find articles about yourself on other search engines. So using a number of different open source websites that are open and free for all to use and all perfectly legal, I set about investigating the two brothers.
All the information on their company website is straightforward and supposed to be in the public eye as it is necessary to promote their company. As is the information held at companies house, where all companies and their directors are listed. It was when I delved into the world of social media that I became alarmed at just how easy it can be to find information out about you.
Both brothers were on LinkedIn but you require a LinkedIn account to view profiles so a blank was drawn there. Facebook is similar but with an account (who doesn’t have one?) you can find people easily. Yes some people have their privacy settings well tied down, yet you only have to find one of their friends who have an open account and you can snoop about a bit better.
Twitter is where I found out the most. One had a closed account (sound advice) and I could not see anything of their profile, tweets or followers, etc. Yet the other’s was wide open. Now, the brother who had an open Twitter account was not tweeting every five minutes or openly giving much away. Yet all I needed was a bit of patience to trawl through a few hundred tweets and I established he enjoyed an outdoor life cycling, camping and running. He regularly drove on a specific motorway because he would tweet his displeasure at being stuck in jams on it. I established he had two young sons, found out their names and ages as well as what schools they went to.
I found a picture of his car and private registration plate as well as his age and date of birth. Well he did tweet out when it was his last day of his thirties, it doesn’t take much of a mastermind to work it out.
It is scary to think what information I established in a couple of hours.
When I went home that night it made me think about my online profile. I cycle and record my rides on a sporting social media account which shows the routes I take. The site in question had to install a feature where you could anonymise the area around your home address so it was not obvious where you lived. This was due to a rise in thefts of bikes as people could see online where people were living and using expensive machinery. I posted these rides on the sporting app as well as Facebook and Twitter (on an open account) so people could see what bike I had and roughly where I lived.
I would post pictures of my pets and display their names, be careful if you use your pets names as passwords, it is not difficult to work out a password from that. All those times you go on holiday and let your friends know your are sat by a swimming pool hundreds of miles away, letting everyone know your house is empty and free to break into! Many insurance companies are not paying out if you claim on a break in as you let the world wide web know you were not in at the time.
Apart from Twitter, many social media sites, do not remove the Exif Data from your pictures. What is Exif Data? It is all the information about the picture you have just taken. So the device you used, your co-ordinates (location) where it was taken, etc. So if you take a selfie or a picture of your dinner and post it online, people can establish where in the world that picture was taken in two clicks and find you home address.
Whilst it may be fun to post, tweet, take pictures, check in to places online you need to realise what imprint you are leaving online. Your posts do not delete forever you know? Whilst you may press delete, the meta data can remain, it is just over time, it gets buried a little deeper in the onion of the net as more data is added on top. Yet it is not impossible to locate that deleted post.
Another couple of sites helped me find many tweets in the world and I could even find tweets posted in my local area. All these accounts that were tweeting were on open accounts but these people were having conversations with others, blissfully unaware anyone can legally eavesdrop and read them. So a tweet about going on holiday can give someone a clue which property may be empty for the next week.
Going back to Facebook, how often do we write on our profile where we live, who we are married to, what we do for a job, etc. Would you tell a stranger all that information? No.
In a world where we share things without thinking and at an alarming rate, we seem to have forgotten who our audience is. So next time you tweet, post or snap just remember you may as well be shouting down a loud hailer in the middle of your town centre all your private business to whoever fancies listening.