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How we did it! Digging up your personal information online.

15. 02. 2013

Methods We Use for Online Privacy Investigation

Thane Burnett of the Toronto Sun recently approached us to help him out on a story about online privacy. We created a profile for him that included his address, information on his kids and wife, his cell phone number, work history and more.

This was all done with his permission of course. He had asked us to find everything we could on him, good or bad. Which is exactly what we did.

The following are basic examples of the type of research we did. We have removed some of the dull details and anything that could help those with nefarious intentions.

Cached data

Most things on the internet can certainly be ‘deleted’ in the classical context but is it really gone? Let's say you post something on your personal blog. You have control over the blog and can simply delete that post if you wish.

The problem is that while it’s gone from your blog, the post can still be accessed through various 'caches.' There are websites that cache all the content on the Internet (Google is one of them) making it easy for users to find deleted posts or even full websites.

Social Media

Many people don't realize just how much information they give away on social media. If you post to Facebook using a phone, depending on the settings, it can post where you currently are with the message. Even if you delete this post, it is possible it has been cached, making it permanently available for anyone that may be looking for it.

Not only this, it is possible to piece together information on your personal life from these postings. Even those who are private about their family may at some point mention their kids or husband. This can be put together with enough time, and when connected with other information found, form a complete picture. It's rather easy for someone to do a filtered search through your posts for 'my husband', for example.

With most social media sites your 'friends' or connections are publicly available. With enough time someone can find information on your friends and combine that with their own data to create a more complete profile of you. For example, if a large number of your friends work for a specific company, it's possible that you work for (or have worked in the past for) that company as well. This can also be used to figure out what school you went to or where you grew up.

WHOIS data

If you currently own, or have ever owned a domain name (for example, 9thCO.com) you had to give your address and other details for the WHOIS registry. This data is available to anyone publicly and is permanent. Even if you sell that domain name, your address is still attached to it as historical WHOIS data.

Photo EXIF Data

When you take a photo with your camera or cell phone, the device automatically attaches EXIF data to that photo. This data can include simple things such as the camera used and the date the photo was taken but can also include location data (most cell phones and modern cameras attach this using GPS.)

This data can be combined with the previous mentioned data to help pinpoint where you live and where you work.

White Pages

The White Pages website is a lot like the phone book. It has home numbers and addresses a massive number of people. This can seem scary but they do hide the first name of everyone listed on the site. The trouble is that it is easy to combine this data with the data from other sections of this article. If you have the city the person lives in you can easily narrow your results down.

Just the beginning

These are just some of the basics. With enough time and some creativity it is possible to put together a very accurate profile of an individual. For example, all of this data can be combined with Google street view (a photo of your house) and satellite imagery.

One very important point is that even though this data is available, it does take some in-depth research to find it all. A person would have to be rather dedicated to collecting it, spending many hours to dig into it all and parse it.

Toronto web design and online marketing firm 9th sphere offers online reputation management services for those looking to clean up or enhance online personal profiles.

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