When Metacrawler, one of the Internet's most popular search engines, started allowing users to see what other people were searching for (its so-called Metaspy facility), it revealed one interesting fact: that looking for what other people are searching for is very uninteresting. People are scouring the Internet for information about the Titanic, the periodic table, Wyoming and - I'm not making this up - nude Keanu Reeves pictures.

Metaspy doesn't actually tell you who's doing the searching; in fact, the only thing it reveals is that everybody is doing the same rather mundane stuff as everybody else. It does, however, bring to mind the Government's idea of having a national CV database; an odd idea when a lot of the information you might want about somebody is already out there.

But, if you really want to dig the dirt on somebody, you don't have to go to Mission Impossible-style lengths to find the information. A friend who recently started working in the financial sector is convinced his employer must have looked up his name on the Internet before offering him the job. He only became suspicious when it transpired that they had uncovered a long-severed association he'd had with a religious cult. The group had put out a hit list of "enemies" on the Internet in which, he discovered, his name appeared.

Generally, though, if you want to investigate somebody, the key is their e-mail address: these days, if somebody has just come out of university, it's virtually certain that they'll have one. Even if you don't know what it is, e-mail search engines can pull up the relevant information relatively easily. The place to head next is the newsgroup archives, which hold lists of everything that's ever been posted to newsgroups since whenever. Not that high a proportion of people use newsgroups, but, if they do, then you're onto a goldmine of information about their interests, likes, dislikes and even, if they're desperately indiscreet, their perversions. And, if you can dig up a home page, then you'll probably find just about everything there is to know about somebody.

At the end of the day, despite the dangers of finding false information on what is, admittedly, a completely unregulated database, I have to confess that if I was sizing up, say, a prospective flatmate I'd probably have a stab at looking them up. They'd just have to hope they don't share their name with a serial con artist or a mass murderer. I'm not sure it's entirely ethical but, like they say, sometimes you do things just because you can...

Of course, it is possible that I'm being a bit paranoid over all this. There is, after all, one sure-fire way of getting information about people - even though it seems to be getting less and less popular as we become more obsessed with information. And what's that? Well, you just ask them.

Popular search engine

Metacrawler's guide to who's looking for what on the Internet.

The best place to look for e-mail addresses.

Archive of newsgroup postings, searchable by e-mail address.