What the Web knows about you

How much private information is available about you in cyberspace? Social Security numbers are just the beginning.

I gathered plenty of data on Robert L. Mitchells, but most of the data wasn't relevant to the Robert L. Mitchell I was investigating. Each search yielded multiple results, including some records with outdated information about me and others with totally inaccurate data. In some cases, aggregated data clearly had been mismatched, which appeared to be the result of mashing together two different Robert Mitchells into one identity.

ZabaSearch pulled up only an e-mail address I don't use and another that no longer exists, but it did find my mailing address, which it displayed on a satellite map. WhitePages.com had my name and phone number associated with a wrong address. Switchboard incorrectly described my home telephone number as unlisted. PublicInfoGuide.com found a residential address but listed four "relatives" that I never knew I had. PeopleFinders returned an address and phone number in another state where I had lived 20 years ago.

In some cases, part of the search results, such as the full address or e-mail address, was deliberately omitted. PeopleFinders located a Robert L. Mitchell in the correct town but wanted $1.95 for the full address. As up charges go, that was cheap: US Search wanted $10 to divulge the full address. I found it unnecessary to pay for these results, since different sites tended to provide different information upfront -- I could piece together all the bits of free information from various sites.

My Computerworld affiliation didn't turn up initially, nor did my business phone lines or my cell phone number. A search at ZoomInfo produced my correct title and Computerworld affiliation, but the work history was a comedy of errors, including incorrect titles and a stint as a PC World contributor that I must have forgotten. Under "Education," the results simply said "MSN dial-up."

Source: Search engines

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

I continued my research with the commercial search engines, including Google , Yahoo Search , Microsoft's Live Search , Dogpile and Vivisimo's Clusty . I used combinations of my name, job title, business name and location, and I concerned myself with only the first few pages of results.

As I encountered new information, I added it to my search criteria and ran searches again and again. The search engines divulged my age, phone numbers, my identities on three social networking sites and dates when I had signed up, my positions with two nonprofit organizations, links to Computerworld stories, blog links, a few snarky remarks about my stories and an announcement that a Computerworld story I wrote won an ASBPE award in 2007.

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