Information about our lives, including personal information, is increasingly ending up online. Many of us have concerns over the security and privacy of this sharing. Women experiencing domestic violence, sexual violence, and stalking have even more complex safety risks and concerns when their personal information ends up on the Internet.
HOW DOES MY INFORMATION GET ON THE WEB?
To understand how information about you is getting collected, shared and archived online, you need to first understand how information gets posted online. Information ends up on the Internet in one of two ways: either you post it or someone else posts it.
INFORMATION YOU POST
Below are some examples of ways you could be sharing personal information online:
- Posting updates on social networks.
- Sharing your location by “checking in” through social-based location sites such as Foursquare or other social networks.
- Commenting on articles or blogs or writing reviews on shopping sites.
- Creating wish lists or liking certain content through sites like Amazon, Etsy, or Pinterest.
- Sharing photographs or videos online.
- Interacting with other users through virtual worlds or online games.
- Inadvertently sharing personal information online, such as location data when uploading photos.
Even if the information you post may not seem to be identifying, it can reveal a lot about you. Posting a picture of your local school’s mascot or a favorite restaurant might inadvertently reveal your location. Or if the location setting on your phone is turned on for your camera application, uploading pictures taken with that camera may contain the exact location of where that picture was taken.
If you have joined any website where you create a profile page, make sure you know who can see that information. Depending on the site, that profile information may be available to other users. Typically, the default settings will allow anyone who visits that site (family members, potential employers, and stalkers) to see your personal information. Keep in mind that even if you are allowed to “lock down” your account through the privacy settings, some account or profile information may always be public (your user name, for example).
- If you join sites where you create an account and a profile, check to see if you’re allowed to change your privacy settings to minimize what others can see about you. These sites are meant to draw in as many people as possible, and by default, your information may be available to anyone.
INFORMATION OTHERS POST ABOUT YOU
Anyone can post information about you, including your friends, family (including your children and current and former partners), employer, church, community groups, school, government, information brokers, and others. Information about you can come from different sources including:
- Court Records
- Employer staff directories
- Web directories
- Voting Registration Records
- Faith Community/Work/School Newsletters
- Social Networking Sites
When sharing information or interacting with any public entity, court or government agency, ask if any of your personal information will be posted online. Ask if there is an opt‐out option and how you can opt out.
- Information Brokers
Information about you may be published to the web from less obvious routes. As a consumer, your information could be sold to advertisers, marketers, and data brokers. Information brokers compile data from public agencies (assessor’s offices, court records, voter registrations, and other public records), phone books, consumer surveys, warranty cards, merchants (local and chain stores), contests, social media activity and more. Your information is combined and then sold to others who want information about you, including media outlets, law enforcement, employers, landlords, banks, credit cards companies, car companies, the federal government, and private investigators.
- Friends, Family & Colleagues
Most organizations and even many individuals have websites. If you have ever performed in an artistic event, been on a sports team, or spoken at a conference, your name, biography, and contact information may be on the host organization’s website. If you have been quoted by the media or highlighted by them for any reason, your information may be in other places on the web too. Community organizations may post newsletters online, including names of donors, volunteers, staff, board members, and even participants in fundraisers. Some Parent Teacher Associations (PTA) post minutes of their meetings and includes names of attendees. Even older information that wasn’t originally online may still end up online since organizations and family members are scanning and posting old newsletters, pictures, or articles to the web.
Ask organizations that you are a part of if they have any publications or websites. If you are concerned about your privacy and safety, ask to them not to publish your information.
Be aware of what schools or employers may post online about you and your children.
Ask friends and family members not to mention you, tag you, or post pictures or videos of you online.
HOW DO I KNOW WHAT’S ALREADY ON THE WEB?
Use a search engine like Google or Bing to search for yourself. “Search engines” (such as Google) index the web and create virtual card catalogs that link to the actual content. Search engines have existed since the web was developed, and they are getting faster and smarter every day. Most search engines periodically “archive” or “cache” websites by saving copies of every webpage so that users can still access the content, even if the website is offline, has changed, or is otherwise unavailable. This means that any information ever published online could potentially be available forever (or as long as the Internet exists). Even if a website is changed to remove inaccurate or dangerous information, the old web content might still be indexed by a search engine.
- Browse online directories for your information. Online phone directories like canada411.ca include reverse phone look‐up features where someone can search a phone number to find the name associated with that number, the address, and a map of the location. Even if your phone number is unlisted through your phone company, your address, phone number, and a map to your house may be available through records obtained from marketing companies and other databases.
- Browse websites where you think your information may be posted. Visit websites for groups and places that you’re connected to: your job, faith community, sports teams, community and volunteer groups, etc.
CAN I REMOVE INACCURATE, FALSE, OR INFORMATION I DON’T LIKE FROM THE INTERNET?
Search engines like Google and Yahoo typically aren’t responsible for posting your personal information on the Internet. Often, they simply search to find all the websites that list your information. To fully remove your information, you will need to go to each of those individual sites and request that your information be removed.
Depending on the accuracy and sensitivity of the information, it may be best to leave it alone. Many women experiencing violence prefer to leave inaccurate information online to obscure the accurate information that is also available. If the information you find on the web is abusive or potentially dangerous, you can contact the website and ask them to remove the information. Most social networks will have reporting options where you can flag abusive content. Websites will remove content based on their terms of service and community guidelines.
Some sites might require additional information from you to prove that you are indeed the person the information is about. Only share what you’re comfortable sharing. For example, if you’re asking for a site to remove your phone number, but you must give them your physical address, driver’s license number, and a photograph to process the removal, that information may be more information than you’re comfortable sharing.
Also keep in mind that removing what an abusive person posted might alert to them that someone complained, and some perpetrators may respond by increasing their stalking, harassment, or abuse. Think through possible retaliation from the perpetrator in your safety strategies. If the information published about you on the web is extremely dangerous, inaccurate, or otherwise damaging, talk to a domestic or sexual violence counselor for help and speak to an attorney in your state to advise your legal options.
HOW DO I PREVENT FURTHER INFORMATION FROM BEING POSTED?
The best way to prevent more information from being posted online is to prevent the information from being collected in the first place. Although this is easier said than done, here are some tips to get you started:
- When a cashier asks for your phone number or postal code, you don’t have to share it. In situations where you must provide a phone number, consider giving your work number instead of your home number. You can also use a virtual phone number, like Google Voice, to have a number not connected to your personal information to share.
- If you register for a grocery/drugstore discount card program, fill in very little information. Some stores have a “store card” that you can ask to use.
- Use a pen name when writing letters to the editor or posting online.
- Give donations anonymously.
- When possible, avoid paying with debit or credit cards.
- If you belong to organizations that have a website, ask that your name not be included in publications and ask that you not be “tagged” in photos that are posted.
- When looking for jobs, don’t post your resume on any of the career sites. Instead, search the web for available jobs and send resumes directly to those you’re interested in.
- Ask friends not to blog about you, post things about you on their social networking pages, or post photos or videos of you.
- Check all of your privacy and security settings on sites that you use, both on your computer and on your phone to ensure that you’re not inadvertently sharing information.
In addition to preventing information from being posted online, you can try to monitor what does get posted. Set up a “Google Alert” that will email you any time it finds your name online. When signing up for alerts, share as little personal information as possible. Some online services, such as Abine, SafeShepherd, Reputation.com will monitor people search sites and remove your name from them, for a fee.
©2019 BC Society of Transition Houses, Technology Safety Project.
Adapted from and in cooperation with the Safety Net Technology Project at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, United States