The Annoying Internet - Invasion of Privacy

July 19, 2012

Creative Commons license: attribution
Creative Commons license: attribution | Source

Summary

This hub is going to examine some of the common sources of privacy failures on the internet that many people are likely unaware of as well as some steps that people can take to protect themselves. Specifically it will look at issues of unprotected directories, domain registrations, property tax records, and people search websites.

Unprotected directories

A directory is a folder accessible via the internet showing a list of files. Many directories contain a file which contains code that generates a web page when you access the directory (usually an index.htm, index.html, or index.php). If you, for instance, type the following into your browsers address bar http://volcanoes.usgs.gov you will not get a directory listing, you will get a webpage because it contains such a file.

Not all directories have such a file, and if they are not password protected, accessing them will generate a directory listing. The following is an example from the same server: http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Imgs/Jpg/. This gives you a directory listing with a list of folders containing photos. The USGS, of course, has no need to protect these files, as they are all meant for public consumption and are probably linked to by other webpages. Below is a screen shot of an open directory on the USGS site.

Not everybody, however, understands the issue of unprotected directories, and there are lots of examples of people who put files into these directories thinking that no one will ever see them or be able to find them.

The other day I randomly stumbled into one which contained a number of folders containing photos of a young couple. For the most part they were very ordinary photos you would expect to find in a photo album out on the coffee table: BBQs, birthdays, vacations, etc. But there was one folder which contained photos of the lady that were clearly meant to be for a boyfriend's eyes only.

I was a bit conflicted on whether I should say something or not. Do I violate her privacy by letting her know which would allow her to secure the content? Or do I leave her in ignorant bliss and hope no one else ever sees them? I asked this question to the Hubpages community and the overwhelming response was that I should try to let her know.

Domain Registrations

Up to this point, however, all I had were first names, Bob and Betty (not real names) and no contact information. So what's the next step?

Domain registrations require a name and address. It is a reasonable assumption that a large piles of photos like what I had found are located on a personal domain. Domain registrations are for the most part publicly viewable and easy to find. There are many sites which provide this information. I don't have a particular favorite so will usually just type a search into Google. Something like this: <"www.exampledomain.com" domain information>. Running a search for the domain in question found a domain listed with Godaddy. Seen below.

This is a fairly standard listing that you will find. In this case, the listing is for a man, matching the first name of the man in the photos, and includes what appears to be a home address.

Property Tax Information

It is reasonable to assume that the last name of the man is the last name of the woman (amongst the photos were wedding photos of the two). To double check, property tax records are another source of information which is easy to check. Most counties these days have this information searchable online. The county in my case is Denton county, Texas. Here is their search site: http://taxweb.dentoncounty.com/taxwebsite/. A search for the property revealed by the domain registration reveals the following information:

You can see a variety of information is listed including in this case the name of the woman with her middle initial along with her husband as owner. Johnson Bob & Betty R (not real names).

People Search

There are a LOT of people search sites out there. PeekYou, I think is a pretty good one, but there are many others.

WARNING: Avoid MyLife and any other of these types of sites which require registration. This just gives them even more information about you.

With just a first and last name, these sites aren't always very helpful, especially if it is a common name. Every extra little piece of information greatly reduces potential matches. These extra data points include middle initials, states of residence, and age range.

As an example I ran searches on PeekYou for the actual Betty Johnson. For state I used Texas and age range I used 25-35. Results are shown in the chart below. You can see how dramatically the extra information starts to reduce the number of possible matches. For a less common name, the list would be very manageable.

Depending on the person, PeekYou (and similar sites) can have a variety of information, including possible aliases (which for ladies is often a maiden name), possible relatives, partial addresses and phones, employers, links to social media profiles, ages, etc.

Facebook

With the information I have it was not difficult to find a Facebook profile for Betty Johnson (not real name) and her husband. Facebook is a privacy nightmare. That's all I'm really going to say about it. One of the big mistakes, in my opinion, is listing family relationships. At any rate, from Facebook, I found additional photos, husband's employer, Betty's high school, etc.

Review

What I have done so far is not really difficult or time-consuming (was about 20-30 minutes of work). It required nothing illegal, no money spent and no registrations on websites. Everything I have gathered is publicly available and free to anyone with an internet connection.

In that half-hour I have collected (or could have collected) a large pile of photos of this young lady, her husband, friends, and family; some photos of her half-nude; a full name, including middle initial; maiden name; husbands employer; lady's high school; home address; Facebook profiles; a list of relatives; and her age. So you can only imagine what can be collected with more time, a willingness for illegality, and spending some money.

So, what can You do?

Unprotected Directories
Don't put personal files in unprotected directories. That's a pretty simple one. Protecting a directory can be done by adding passwords or simply by adding a blank index.html file in the folder. This isn't a problem for all servers. Some automatically add a blank index file. Others prevent access to them entirely. If you don't know test it out for yourself.

Domain Registrations
Consider registering with a company which will hide your personal information. NearlyFreeSpeech.net is one which does so. Others might as well, but probably charge a small fee.

Property Tax Records
There probably isn't much you can do about this one. If you are married you could limit the listing to one name. You could also leave out a middle initial. Honestly, I really don't know why this information is public. There may be some counties which allow people to opt out of their property being publicly listed, but I really don't know. It isn't really the worst in terms of privacy, because it is probably pretty rare to have someone's address and not their name, but still it is something to be aware of.

People Search Sites
There isn't much you can do about the information contained on these sites, but it is worthwhile to know what information they do have on you. Go ahead and pop into a few of them and run your name. If you have never done it, you may be quite surprised.

General
You have to strike a balance between paranoia and prudence. It's pretty much useless to try to keep all personal information off of the internet. It is inevitable. However, that doesn't mean you should be careless. I am always surprised by some of the photos I see of people that are publicly available online, especially involving children. Photos often contain a lot of information that people just don't even think about that can provide information such as names and locations. Be careful with photos and information you place on social media sites. Especially Facebook.

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Comments 9 comments

suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM

I don't know if you realize this or not, but everything in these files are public recored - even the photos COULD BE. Property tax records, names and addresses of residences are all public record. Marriages and divorces are all public records. You can walk into your county courthouse anywhere in the U.S. and request this info and they have to show it to you. I can get the tax records of anyone I want - it's public record. When I was a teacher, my personnel file was public record. Anyone could walk off the street and view my personnel file and I had no recourse. If something is public record, and this is what you are talking about in this hub, then it is open to the public - it can be on the internet, it can be on TV for that matter. Marriages, divorces are all public record. All you have to do is go down to the courthuse and ask for your neighbor's divorce file and you get all the juicy details of their divorce. Anything that is public record cannot be hidden. So it is easier to obtain the records on the internet, but before the internet, people just went to the county courhouse to obtain this information. As for the girl with the pbotos, that is a different story, if they were part of a court case or a divorce file then they are public record.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 3 years ago from Michigan Author

Hey suzettenaples,

Sorry I just saw your comment today.

If you already have a name and maybe an address, sure, there is lot's of information to be gotten about people by searching public records. The thing I was trying to illustrate here was sort of going in reverse. I started simply with a photo and was able to gather all of that information quickly and easily sitting at my computer. And just having a name isn't always that helpful. For example, the 15,000 Betty Johnsons in America. The name by itself can be useless without being able to narrow it down. One way to narrow it down is by information from photos. I'm not an advocate of being super-paranoid, but it doesn't hurt to be somewhat careful.

The other point that is interesting is the difference between physically getting the records at a courthouse and getting them anonymously over the internet. Physical records place some geographical limits on what is available or at least require someone to identify themselves if they get the records through the mail.

Also, there is a lot of information to be had about people that won't show up in public records--where someone works, who their friends are, what kind of car they drive, where their kids go to school, etc. This sort of evidence can be gathered from a combination of things like photos and social media sites.

Overall, my point is to say that there is some value in being pretty fuzzy on the internet to the general public. Every little data point (full names, specific location (like city level), schools attended, places worked, family relationships, etc.) helps to make a clear picture of someone. I always try to limit these types of things.

I'm really curious now about public records. I had always kind of assumed that if you walk into a courthouse and request someone's public records that you'd have to at least identify yourself and they would log the transaction. I don't know that that is true though. I know the other day I was looking for property records in a county in New York and they required me to register an account with them. I imagine they also kept a log of the records I accessed. That makes sense to me. The ability to access them completely anonymously just doesn't seem right to me.

Thanks for stopping by.


CraftytotheCore profile image

CraftytotheCore 3 years ago

This is very useful! I am not a regular participant in FB any more. At one time I had an account and created a fake birthday. It amazed me how many of my "friends" would post happy birthday on my real date even though it went to everyone in my friends list and their friends list and they knew I wanted that to remain private.

FB just wasn't for me. I totally hear you on this stuff! It's better to keep something totally off the internet.


funny123 profile image

funny123 3 years ago

Great article, I generally only use my FB account with stuff I don't mind everyone in the world knowing. I found a site called glom.com , though there aren't many users I can do pretty much everything I need with a social media site and the privacy policy is solid.


JayeWisdom profile image

JayeWisdom 2 years ago from Deep South, USA

This article contains very useful advice. I was a very brief participant in Facebook, but closed my account and TRIED to delete everything in it (following the FB directions), but later discovered that it's still there. Once you put anything at all on Facebook, no matter how you try to protect it, Mark Zuckerberg (in effect) owns it! And can do whatever he pleases with it. But, I digress.

I did Google my name; in fact, I Googled my present name and the one I had before I remarried and divorced. On the people search sites that give you free info, I found my late ex-husband's first and third wives (I was the second) listed as my 'relatives.' There was also a teaser on one of them proffering information about arrest records that almost made me willing to plunk down the required $$ to get the report--ALMOST, but I restrained myself. I've never been arrested, and my name is not a very common one, so this is puzzling. However, I'm aware that it could just be a come-on tactic they use to pry the gullible loose from their money. I decided not to be gullible. (But what if there is a report out there that says I've been arrested??? This is maddening, but so is much that's on the Internet.)

Another thing that shows up when I Google my name is that the local Republican Party has me on a list showing I'm a registered Democrat in the county in which I reside. I don't keep it a secret, but what is their reason for publishing this information? Should I worry that some gun-toting NRA/Republican is going to come looking for me with the objective of ridding this very red state of a 'LiberalSocialistDem?" Oh, my. That's almost more dangerous than being on Nixon's or J. Edgar Hoover's bad lists.

By the way, my eyes opened wider when I saw that you live in Denton, Texas. I lived very near Denton (Lewisville for a while, then Grapevine) back in the late '80s and 90s. Not only that, I recently wrote some promotional articles about Denton County for a client. One of my best friends lives in Krum. It's like old home week here, isn't it?

As a Democrat living in Denton, do you feel almost totally surrounded by Republicans? I did, but had no idea how much worse it would be when I moved to Mississippi! Haha.

I'm still working my way through your hubs, but will limit the controversial ones to no more than two per day. (I'm an aging lady and have to think of my blood pressure.) So far, though, everything I've read is near-perfect (in my opinion). I said 'near' because you have one typo in the global warming piece. The first time you meant to type 'think-tanks', you added an 'h' to 'tanks', making it 'thanks." I'm just telling you this--not to be critical--but so you can repair it and make that hub PERFECT in every way! Because it was outstanding.

This one is voted Up, Useful and Interesting/Shared

Jaye


TotalHealth profile image

TotalHealth 2 years ago from Hermosa Beach, CA

Great info! Too many people I come across have no idea how exposed their true identities really are in the internet world. Social media platforms like Facebook only make privacy less private, as you appropriately pointed out. - Thumbs up!!


junkseller profile image

junkseller 2 years ago from Michigan Author

JayeWisdom, I agree about Facebook. I put very little information on it. I don't even verify family relationships. You can learn an awful lot about people through Facebook. Especially if they post a lot of photos. Most people don't really think about the information that photos can contain, such as places or objects in the background.

That's interesting about the voter information. I hadn't thought about that, but I think the voter rolls are somewhat public documents.

I didn't actually live in Denton. That was just the location of the people I was looking up. I did live in Austin for awhile. Loved Austin and miss it, of course, it is more liberal than most of Texas. Now I live in Michigan and it feels Republican to me, but I think that is just because I am well to the left. I've never been down in Mississippi. I suspect a liberal alarm would go off if I tried to cross the border.

Thank you for pointing out the typo. It's amazing how many times you can read something and still miss those things.


Express10 profile image

Express10 2 years ago from East Coast

Good tips here. Nobody's safe, even those who never owned/used a computer.


peachpurple profile image

peachpurple 17 months ago from Home Sweet Home

oh luckily our country doesn't have such invasion

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