Being Smart about your Online Footprint

An “online footprint” is everything that’s out there about you on the Internet, voluntarily shared or not.  Whenever you go on a site, write in a forum or sign up to a social network like Facebook, you’re leaving a digital footprint.

Did you know that there are services out there that have no other purpose but to collect information about YOU?  While I’m not trying to sound too Orwellian about this topic; your online presence can sneak up on you.

Example:  Remember when your friend’s random friend you saw once got drunk at your place, then ran up behind you and snapped a self-portrait of you and your buddies looking all hammered?  Yeah, he:

    • Tagged you on Facebook
    • His profile is set to “Everyone / Public”
    • He also didn’t turn off “Allow Google to index my profile”

Then, there is another person with your same name who has creditors after him and just committed a felony.  His information shows up right next to yours on Spokeo and Naymz.

Then, the Google Streetview van came by your house last summer the day after your neighbor had a raging kegger and there is garbage all over his yard.  Google isn’t 100% accurate all of the time so your locator is right over his roof.

Then, someone bought something from you on eBay and apparently wasn’t happy with it.  Instead of emailing you, they took their wrath out on a random forum out there.

You are courting a prospective employer and they type your name into Google – game over.  This example can happen even just for a regular person who thinks they are “good” about what they put online.

Don’t underestimate the invasive nature of technology today my friends…social networking, “garbage collectors” (Spokeo, MyLife, Naymz, WhitePages, etc), even government info about how much you pay in property taxes is all online and searchable.  You can’t be “voluntarily private” anymore.

A real-life example:  Someone I work with is very secluded – he doesn’t have any Internet connectivity (or I don’t think even a computer for that matter) at home, no Facebook, doesn’t blog, doesn’t do ANYTHING online.  Being silly and close co-workers that we are (along with some other quirks he has), we naturally poke him a little bit about innocent random things.  One thing is that he would not tell anyone WHERE he lived.  It’s not like we were looking to come to his house or TP his yard one night, but I think the conversation was about a commute one day and he strangely stopped describing his route when he got within probably 5 miles of his house.  My department mines data – this is all we do.  We’re curious and don’t like not having data.  HA!  Even though he had NO real online interactivity, 5 minutes of searching on Google yielded his address, property taxes, and spouse’s name.

It is AMAZING what the garbage collectors on the Internet can dredge up and display in one place.  You cannot scrub it all (believe me, I’ve tried) but you can be smart about it.  You won’t be able to stop involuntary information (address, phone number, satellite images, taxes, judgements, etc), but you can control your voluntary information.

One of the ways that I have tried to control my online footprint is by embracing the different portals available out there.  By embracing technology, I feel I have at least some control of each point that these “garbage collectors” gather – at least enough to overpower the bad with the good.

Facebook – my primary personal social networking portal.  I do have some professional contacts on here, but it is because I’ve explicitly invited them to the personal side of my life.  Pictures, updates, and links that are related to my family or things I think are cool are displayed here.  Even though this is what I regard as 100% personal, my general rule of thumb is to not post anything I wouldn’t mind having plastered on the evening news with my face and name next to it.

LinkedIn – my primary professional social networking portal.  I only create connections and post things that are relevant to my professional career.  Funny cat pictures or “GUNNA GET CRUNK!” don’t belong here (nor does the latter belong anywhere, but I digress…)

Twitter – I use as more as an information gathering mechanism.  I honestly don’t care if Paris Hilton is on the toilet at this moment, but I use it to see snow emergencies in my area, top news articles, and items from the many “deal a day” sites that I pay attention to.

The bottom line of all of this – just be smart about this stuff.  Don’t click on or download something you didn’t specifically ask for, don’t fill out forms on sites unless you REALLY know you’re safe…and even if you do, put only the minimal information necessary.  People make a living buying and selling your info.

Technology is only as smart as the people who created it, and then only then again as smart as the people who implemented it, and again only as smart as the people who are using it.  You’re a smart person – you wouldn’t walk up to a strange person and give them your address info, would you?

Think about it.