One of the on-going conversations throughout Mo*Con weekend was that of how much of a writer’s life should be available for public consumption.  In this age of social media (Twitter, MySpace, Facebook, etc), online privacy becomes a matter of critical concern.  With that, a friend of mine has offered to fill in with some expertise.
Online Privacy Protection

Guest Blog by Jim Cobb

Eleven o’clock at night and you are just settling in for a few hours of quiet time in your home office.  Spouse is snoozing away, kids are in bed as well.  Deadlines are looming so it is time to get cracking.

Eh, who can be knocking on front door at this hour?  You peek out the window and there’s a young man standing there.  He’s smiling rather shyly and looks harmless enough.  Opening the door, you say, “Yes?  Can I help you?”

<SHRIEK!>  “Oh my God, ITS YOU!  I am like your biggest, bestest fan EVAH!  Omigod, omigod, breathe, breathe.  Dude, you are AWESOME!  Like the best writer ever and we’re gonna be BEST FRIENDS!  I have all sorts of ideas for you to write about!  You and I are gonna colla…cobal…confab…write a bunch of stuff together!  We’re like two peas in a pod now and we’regonnahavesomuchfuntogetherIcanhardlycontainmyself!”

That’s when you notice two things.  He has a hypo in his hand and there is what appears to be a tin foil beanie under his ball cap.

Now, if you’re Brian Keene, you have your Taurus and the zombie you keep in the back storage closet.  If you’re Wrath James White, um, well you’re Wrath.

For the rest of us mere mortals, such a situation might not be all that much fun.

How hard is it to track someone down online?  I’ve been specializing in online investigations for the last decade.  Way back when I was first starting out, I hung out on a message board hosted by the local ISP.  Just a bunch of folks jawing away about nothing.  One day, I made a post about how emails could be traced to their source.  A new guy responds to the thread and says it is *impossible* to track someone down online, everything is anonymous.  All I knew about the guy at that point was the username he was using on the message board.

Quite literally, and this is no joke, an hour later I knocked on his front door and introduced myself.  The sound of his ass slamming shut echoed off the trees near the driveway.

How did I find him so easily?  Well, first I searched his username through various search engines.  Quickly found a website he’d set up for his family.  On that website, he would post regular updates on what his family was up to.  Little Joey had made the track team at such-and-such school (giving me a general area where he lived).  His wife had recently obtained her real estate license and he linked to a site set up for her listings (now I had his wife’s first and last name).  He also mentioned he was selling his 1998 Buick and gave a link to an online ad for it.  That ad had his phone number but it was a cell, not a landline.  Did a search on the phone number and came up with a few other ads where he had been selling a truck and also advertising his llama farm (no BS, this isn’t a reference to Keene’s dream job).  Did a search on the name of the llama farm.  Got the address for it and drove over to say hi.

Notice anything?  I never once consulted any sort of sooper-seekrit database, driving record, credit report, or anything else that isn’t available to Joe Schlub online.  *Further, everything I found was posted by the target of the investigation or his family.* Had I not found the llama farm info, I still had his wife’s name and could have searched more on that, possibly even consulting a local analog switchboard database (aka the phone book).

And to be honest, I’m not all that good.  Not when compared to today’s 12 year old script kiddies.

So, what can you do to help prevent a charter member of the tin foil beanie brigade from knocking on your door?  Well, keep in mind that even a homeless meth addict living on the street could be located given enough time and budget.  But, here are some tips to at least give you a moderate degree of privacy.

First of all, get a PO Box and use it for EVERYTHING.  Preferably in a different county from the one in which you live.  Why?  Well, public records are a wonderful thing.  Did you know that your property tax bill (if you own your home) is a matter of public record?  Yep, sure is.  And many counties now have that information available online, searchable by the owner name.  If I know what county you’re in, with just a few mouse clicks I have not only your address but a plat map showing me your exact property lines.  Better to have your PO Box near where you work or something.

Keep your phone number unlisted or ditch the landline altogether.  Helpful tip – phone companies charge a premium to have your number unlisted.  You can avoid that charge by just having them list your number in the directory under a different name.  They don’t care what name you use in the listings, as long as they have the correct billing information.  Though they might balk at Elmer Fudd or Roland the Gunslinger, if you use your first name and your wife’s maiden name, shouldn’t be too much trouble.

When you get around to maintaining a website, register the domain using a service that will allow you to keep your registration info private.  There are many services out there, ask around for recommendations.  What you want is a company that will list themselves as the registrant, rather than you.  Otherwise, a quick search through a whois database will give the searcher all they need to find you.

Use nicknames for family members you blog about.  I have three kids – Ace, the Deuce, and Trey.  My wife is alternatively She Who Must Be Obeyed or The Love of My Life Who Somehow Still Puts Up With All My Crap.

If you decide to post pics of your family or your new ride, take a look at the background of the pic before you post it.  License plates, house numbers, street signs could all come back to haunt you.

Keep in mind that once you post something online, it could be there FOREVER.  Even if you delete it, the post might have already been archived somewhere and be available in some form until the end of time.  Tweets, Facebook posts, blog entries.  If you post it, they will read it.  Even that Tweet you send out by mistake when you meant it as a direct message and you deleted it almost immediately probably just got read by a couple hundred people.

When I’m tracing someone online, each and every little tidbit of information can and will be used.  If I have an email address to work with, I’ll not only use various major search engines, but I’ll search for the email addy on Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, and several other social networking sites.

I’ll check for an Amazon Wish List, which just might give me some insight into the subject’s personality as well as give me a general location.

I’ll read through as many blog entries as I can find, taking notes all along the way.

Every trace is different but the methodology is the same.  Every piece of information found is used to search for the next.  They build upon each other, not unlike a brick wall.  It is up to you how many of those bricks you lay around for folks to pick up.