Data privacy – What can I find out about you?

Having studied and worked in Germany, I always had to have data privacy laws (which are quite stringent there) in the back of my mind. So I’ve always had this thing of trying to make people aware that even the slightest slip in data privacy will contribute to the big picture or better said to the big data pool that the world can find for you. Some people understand, some don’t take it too seriously and some think I’m hyping the topic. Rob Miles recently talked in front of a bunch of MSPs including me and talked about the internet as

The Biggest CV you will ever have

Quite true if you ask me, and you really have to be careful what you put online or let people put online about you.

A simple example. At the University of Technology in Munich your student id number (Matrikelnummer in German) was completely separated from your name. It was forbidden to include both parts in one document. Regardless of wether that was offline or online. Grades were published with the id number and project white papers where published with your real name.

In Austria both universities that I visit (TU/WU) have email addresses made up of the student id (i.e. id@university.com) and frequently these email addresses are published on websites together with the names of the students. (Think lists of groups that you are part of during a course and things like that). What effect does that have? Put yourself in the position of an employer who’d like to find out more information on what courses you failed on or how your grades were? It’s quite easy now, all he needs is your name, a search engine and if he finds your student id, he will have gained a lot more information than he should really have.

This example may be quite simple, but it’s not even considering all those social networks you are on and thanks to the number of online publications increasing all the time, you actually have to be aware that anytime you give out your name, it may be published (in an online version of a newspaper article) and consequently indexed by Google and co.

Why am I blogging about that right now? Yesterday I wanted to find out information on a person that I didn’t know anything about except for that he or she (let’s call the person Andi for sake of readability) was in a relationship with someone who’s name I knew. You’d think that’s quite a bad starting point for trying to find information about some one, because you don’t really have a relationship database publicly available. The starting point was Alex (again anonymized to protect gender and people involved). My first search for Alex led me to Alex’s blog, which didn’t turn up any information on Andi. But I found out that Alex had done a particular activity in summer and searching for a combination of name + some activity terms revealed a picture site (that wasn’t linked to from the blog) with a number of photos. I soon found Andi’s nickname and a picture on there. Searching for Andi’s nickname wouldn’t bring up any specific results, so I decided to search for Andi’s name in combination with Alex’s name, which didn’t help, but after searching for Andi’s full given name (that I guessed from Andi’s nickname) and Alex’s name I found an article about people being interviewed about some random topic. There were lot’s of people in the interview, but also Alex’s name and a name starting with Andi’s given name. Chances were good that this was Andi’s real full name.

Once you have that you only need to search on well known social networks and the door is open for a lot more information. Keep in mind that Alex was not on any social networks (Andi was) but I was still able to find quite a bit of information on them.

When meeting new people I usually google them just to see if I can find any similar interests – I’m sure I’m not the only one and you may call me strange now – but wait a couple of years and you’ll be doing it too. But this example surely has convinced me again to be much more careful about what information I publish or make publicly available. Because you can’t really delete something that’s been on the web before.

Just my thoughts…

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