How safe are you from cyber stalkers? Do you Google dates?

Do you Google for your own name? Do you check out potential dates? If you don’t, maybe you should! Other people will be Googling you.

I recently showed a friend how just by using his screen name anyone could get his full name, birthdate, address, phone, names of family members (including his children), place of business, job title…in addition to a lot of compromising information about cheating on his wife. This took less than 5 minutes, was an amateur effort, and cost nothing. He was in shock.

Similarly, a colleague (who should know better) was an investigator was under investigation himself. In about a day I uncovered his personal information on public websites – full name, address, phone, name of spouse, name of dog, email address, activity on a bisexual website (wife did NOT know!) and similar detailed information about the people he interacted with both on the web and in real life from sex sites. Again, no professional databases or techniques and no money.

These are just two examples. Most people have no idea how much intelligence is available for a few clicks. More for a little money.

What is on the internet about you is almost always what you put there, even if you do not realize that other people can find ways to see it. Once it is there, you cannot stop someone from looking for it. That is why it is important to be careful about what you post and put in forum profiles, even during the registration process. This is a way to protect your family from predators. Anybody with internet access can do this – it is not about trust.

I do not find anything disturbing in Googling a potential date’s name, and it’s far from uncommon – potential and sometimes even current employers do it as a matter of course, and I know for certain several people in days past have done it to me, and said as much. I have also done so on occasion in the past, always in the initial stages of virtual meeting/potential interest.

Why?

In some cases, you may find something that is a complete deal-breaker – for example, finding a name and picture in a criminal report or news item, various seedy web sites, etc. In most cases, it’s just a bit more about the person, or simply ensuring their name/pictures do not come up associated with whatever your real/valid deal-breakers are. It may be as simple as wanting to ensure someone is not “addicted” to posting every waking moment of their life online; I know quite a few people who would avoid any relationship of significance with those with excessive/obsessive involvement with Facebook, Warcraft/WoW, or other online activities.

There are obviously a huge range of variations here – both the depth of such a “search” from casual to obsessive, and how someone reacts or acts on such information. If someone set their Facebook or other social sites profile to be publicly accessible, it is indeed public information, and I see no harm there at all, although depending on what is posted at such places for the world to see, it may show that they have no idea such information is really public. This is of course, assuming they have provided their real/actual name to you.

Chasing information across various pieces of information not freely provided starts to get into the questionable phase for me. Yes, it’s easy enough to locate people from a screen name, email address, TinEye, etc. Does it make sense in some contexts, and if so, to what extent? We frequently have guys using TinEye or location/age/name/nickname searches to see how many sites a woman may be on, and similar can apply dating locally or anywhere. If you are a devout Christian, it may well be an instant dealbreaker to find your date on a site for swingers.

For me, the big issue is around depth and intent. I see little wrong with a casual search at initial virtual meeting with a simple goal to confirm the person seems to be as they present themselves, with no bizarre/instant dealbreakers. Maybe we should point out that IMBRA gives ladies information in some cases/sites, at first contact, as well?

Going beyond that casual search/confirmation is where things diverge from comfort, and the reaction of the person being “searched for” should also be considered. I have had someone stalk me, to the point of calling my place of work. I had a good female friend a number of years back who is very private – she had met some guy briefly, intentionally got his number vs giving out hers, and would block her number, but call him to get to know him a bit better and decide if she wanted to go on a date. Whether or not she is somewhat on the paranoid side, with or without reason, doesn’t matter as much as that was her choice. She did decide to go on a date with the guy, and the guy believing himself to be “clever” handed her a map with her full name and address on it. She was very distressed and freaked out, wondered if he was following her around, etc.

In reality, I’m fairly sure she likely forgot to block her phone number on one of her calls, then he took it from there online, got her name and address, then plugged it into Google Maps, Mapquest or similar. She isn’t an unintelligent woman, working in the medical field, but wasn’t very internet-savvy, thought she was being “cautious,” and of course, he very well could have been following her around. Needless to say, no second date for the guy, and I had quite some time calming her down.

We are also in the middle of the “social site explosion” but have yet to learn sanity in general – there are lots of things people can do, but not so many thinking about if they should, let alone any published or generally known “best practices.” There are some laws that probably should exist that don’t, and an awful lot of things people put online today without a thought that are quite likely to be seen as a huge mistake over time, as these things come back to haunt them. Teenagers posting lingerie cam shots on FB, videos, all sorts of things. Many people believe they’re entirely anonymous even while writing their full name, or using part or all of their email address as usernames on various sites.

Search methods some of us are aware of today will only become easier in the future, and automated.

Imagine simply forwarding on an email or picture you received from someone to an information site, and getting back a detailed report of name, address, phone numbers, hobbies, facebook, linkedin, forum activities, video games played, and other information going back for 10 or more years. With the various Internet archive sites, it’s not unrealistic to expect the daughters or sons of those teenagers posting questionable facebook pictures to see their entire history of pictures and activity “going way back.”

Facial recognition is advancing – we see it in various photo apps today; how much longer before a single or a set of pictures or video can be used to locate people’s activities online, and accurately match other pictures across 10 or more years, regardless of whatever username those pictures or videos were created under?

Those are all simple things, and there are others that will happen in time. Digital signatures for some sites (which verify a person’s real identity), let alone things the NSA/Homeland Security and governments already can do today..

Short answer: There are some things that are quite reasonable, and might even be potentially be considered part of “safety” by both men and women, but always consider how someone will or would react to such things, and if you are doing a casual search or going overboard into areas the other person has every reasonable expectation are simply private. If you do find something questionable or potentially so, you may be jumping to the wrong conclusion, and it’s better to discuss than to assume in most cases.

There is certainly a slippery slope. Stories beyond scams go into supposed online sale of goods, people going to meet up to find themselves robbed and or killed, and it’s not getting better but worse. Don’t be a creep or stalker, but be aware of both sides, in what you “look for” as well as what you yourself put out there.

If you worry what might be found, especially from a very simple thing like searching for your name, which you share freely with whomever, you might want to consider what exactly you are posting online publicly, that you consider to be private, for your own protection.

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