What the web knows about you

Think you lead a private life? The internet is making that impossible. Danny Bradbury discovers how much of our personal details are now public knowledge

Have you ever Googled your own name? You might be surprised to see what information the internet holds about you. It's fun to relive career highlights and low-points from years ago, or find embarrassing shots of yourself posing for a team photo with the Sunday League football side you used to play for. The practice even has a cute name, "vanity searching".

But there's a flip side: if you can use the web to dig into your own history, then so can other people. And it's not just meddling friends or potential dates who may be tapping your name into search engines - employers are starting to use the trick, too. Suddenly, it doesn't seem so funny that a friend's MySpace page shows a photograph of you wearing a fluffy red wig and huge shades, flat-out drunk at the office Christmas party. And if you're trying to win a promotion at a law firm, you might come to regret every outré newsgroup post you made at university.

That's why online services are hoping to take care of the problem for you. ReputationDefender, a US-based company, has launched a service to monitor online information about anyone who signs up for their service. If it finds anything embarrassing, it will ask web hosts to take down the information - though it remains to be seen how many of them will comply. The site, which will also check to find out what your children are saying about themselves online, regularly searches the web and focuses on social networking, blogging, and photo-sharing sites.

But your reputation isn't the only thing that you need to protect online. From cyberstalkers to identity thieves, all kinds of people can find out all about you, and potentially wreak havoc with the results.

"The internet is a fantastic place for people to be, to buy, to shop - and to get information. But in today's society, your identity is the most precious thing you will ever have, and once you lose it, it could be lost forever," says Tony Neate, managing director of the Government initiative Get Safe Online, who also worked at the National High-Tech Crime Unit until its absorption into the Serious Organised Crime Agency earlier this year. "You have to take steps online to secure your identity."

We all know the dangers of identity theft - debts accrued in your name can wreak havoc, preventing you getting a mortgage, and your bank account can be targeted. But who knows what some people may do if they can build an extensive profile of you - it has never been so easy to acquire the information, so we can't know yet how it will be used.

How could someone go about snooping on you? Even if you have an ex-directory telephone number, the electoral roll will hold your details by default, unless you specifically choose not to be listed. "If you leave your information on it, your name, date of birth and home address are immediately available," warns Tom Ilube of Garlik, an identity protection service. Not only that, but the names of the people sharing the address will be available, too.

Garlik offers a privacy protection service called DataPatrol, which launched at the start of the month. It searches online for the personal information that could affect your privacy and scours data sources including credit reports, records at Companies House and the Land Registry, alongside more everyday search engines, monitoring for any changes.

Databases such as these can reveal extensive information about you to anyone who has your postcode. Websites such as nethouseprices.com and houseprices.co.uk will let people know what you paid for your house if they tap in your address. Correlate that against the electoral roll information about who lives there and you can begin building a rudimentary economic profile, one private investigator, who wishes to remain nameless, tells The Independent. "You can find out how much they earn because they will probably be sharing the mortgage," he says.

Local council planning permission databases can be another source of information. Some councils put scanned application forms online, displaying everything from detailed house plans to homeowner signatures. And if you have ever been a company director, a quick search of the Companies House database will yield your name, date of birth and address, along with other companies that you have directed, and your previous business partners.

Some services aggregate many of these online searches into one place - 192.com charges for such searches, gathering information from the electoral roll, the telephone database, and Companies House. It will even find information about a person's neighbours. Birth data online will often list the subject's mother's maiden name - a common security question asked by telephone banking services and other institutions.

Such information can be combined with postcode-searchable databases from the Office of National Statistics that provide extensive demographic information about the area surrounding a particular postcode. This provides online sleuths with useful data about everything from educational standards through to healthcare, economic deprivation and local crime statistics, not to mention census data. And so it continues. Every new piece of information can then be tapped into a search engine such as Google to reveal even more information.

Alongside the more traditional databases, social networking sites present a new hunting ground for personal data. To some, they are more than just a source of embarrassing pictures - they can also present a profound privacy risk, warns Simon Davies, director of the privacy advocacy group Privacy International. These sites, such as MySpace, its UK equivalent Bebo, and others such as Facebook, thrive on people's willingness to make connections with each other and post personal information.

"I think people on social networking sites sometimes suspend reality," Davies says. "They do things by impulse, they enter data unintentionally, they build friendships easily and without due care." Davies points to several examples of MySpace users posting pictures and information about themselves and their partners, along with friends posting birthday wishes - and therefore revealing birth dates, another common security question for phone-banking.

No wonder that privacy advisors like Privacy International's Davies and Garlik are urging people to be more careful online. So what can you do? The website of Get Safe Online has guidelines, and you could sign up for services from Garlik or ReputationDefender. But perhaps we should all start by taking more of an interest in what the internet knows about us - the websites (see box) will give you an insight, and there's nothing stopping you from asking companies, out of goodwill, to remove your details. After all, thanks to the internet, your life may well be an open book to those committed enough to read it.

www.getsafeonline.org; www.reputationdefender.com; www.garlik.com

How exposed are you?

If you want to dig deeper than Google and find out what the internet really knows about you, try these web sites.

www.192.com - gathers information from many different resources

www.1837online.com - records of births, marriages and death

www.houseprices.co.uk - house price information, by postcode

www.neighbourhood.statistics.gov.uk - local information

www.ukplanning.com - planning information, searchable by postcode

www.gigateway.org.uk/areasearch/default.html - detailed local civic information

www.postcodeanywhere.co.uk - postcode finder

www.elooker.co.uk/phonesearch.asp - reverse number directory

www.companieshouse.gov.uk - search for companies and directors

www.google.co.uk - everything

maps.google.co.uk - geographic information

www.zoominfo.com - collected information about peoples' careers

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy