As an active Internet denizen, I accept that some of my most personal information will end up in super-public spaces. In fact, I actively put it out there -- I love showing off via FourSquare/Swarm when I’m doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu; I broadcast my travel plans on Facebook and LinkedIn to try to get a bunch of coffee dates set; and when I “lose” my keys (ahem, lose them in the car with the engine running), I share all the embarrassing details on Twitter.
Everyone knows there’s no true privacy on the Internet. But recently that really hit home for me: I only realized that the wedding photo I use for my Facebook banner wasn’t private when my long-lost aunt found it and showed it to my grandmother. It had never even crossed my mind that banner photos don’t fall under image privacy settings. Grandma was deliberately kept unaware of my happily interfaith marriage, ‘cause my family was still trying to work out how—or whether—to tell her. Oops.
As an experiment, I wondered: could I hide my location for a couple of weeks, just in case I ever needed to? Or was I doomed to a life of chronic oversharing, damn the consequences?
What Are You Protecting, Really?
As any investigative journalist can tell you, keeping private information out of the grabby hands of potential online stalkers or weirdos is much easier than going up against governments, law enforcement, or people with subpoenas. It’s also much easier to protect specific information from specific people than to protect all your data from all people all the time.
I had to figure out my "threat model," a fancy way of saying that I had to think about what’s really important to protect, who I want to protect it from (like potential stalkers), and whether there’s enough info out there for creepers to connect the dots.
“With a stalker ... you don't exactly know how extensive their technical capabilities are and how much they know about you,” Electronic Frontier Foundation global policy analyst Eva Galperin told me. “If they already know something about you, then they can put together the different aspects of your life and narrow down what you’re doing and where.”
Location, Location, Location
If you’re a homeowner, the sad fact is that hiding your home address is almost impossible. Not only is it public record, but plenty of data brokers are quick to gobble up location data and sell it to the highest bidder—or any bidder at all. Still, it’s fairly easy to get big locks or a big dog and come up with a game plan for a potential threat at home.
Dealing with someone you run into in a random location is much more difficult. I was really creeped out by that idea, so I looked at all of the places I’d “liked” on Facebook, checked into on Foursquare, or followed on Twitter. This included the places other people had checked me into, and any that showed up in photographs tagged with our location.
All this really showed me what my patterns were and how to avoid them. For my little experiment, I stayed away from all those places. I worked out of spots I’d never been to (hello, chain cafes!), paid in cash and changed it up each day. I also disabled location services on my phone.
I also started using the Tor browser—a way to use the internet while hiding your location and identity. This anonymity makes Tor the go-to browser for domestic violence survivors who want to avoid cyberstalking, and journalists who don’t want to broadcast their newsroom to the folks they’re investigating.
After spending all that time trying to hide my current info, I realized it’s pretty worthless if there’s past information out there that gives everything away. So I decided to stalk myself for a while. Of course I started with the search engines, but I quickly moved on to sites like Spokeo, Pipl, PeopleSmart, Intelius, and BeenVerified.
I have a fairly unusual name, so I dug up a lot of dirt by just using my full name and initials (all the Jane Smiths out there will definitely want to try nicknames and variations of their name).
Of course I didn’t find out anything that I didn’t already know. But I did learn, terrifyingly, that my old LiveJournal account from 2004 that I didn’t know existed anymore, well, still existed. Even though I'd used a clever pseudonym, I didn’t outsmart the data brokers, since the account was associated with my name. (Go Yael!)
I panicked for a minute — the email address associated with that account no longer exists, and I didn’t want anyone and everyone to be able to see my dramatic, long-winded descriptions of various social disputes that seemed very important at the time. Luckily, I was able to remember my old password (I’d been reusing it for a decade). I didn’t have time to sort through the entire account for any potentially embarrassing stuff, so I ponied up $5 to privatize the whole account.
Some of the information on these aggregator sites is much harder to get rid of, though. Even getting a phone number removed—the first thing lots of people want to do when they’re worried about undesirable people contacting them—may take as many as 7 to 14 days, and require a request via snail mail or fax.
Many of these sites have limits on the amount of info you can remove each day. Sometimes sites may take down info from their main site, but still publish it on affiliates. Some ask for additional information to remove your stuff. Some just lie: they tell you the information will be removed, but it never is. Last but not least, some sites like LexisNexis demand that you show them a police report or similar documentation to prove that you "need" privacy. Ugh.
What to Show, What to Tell
It’s good to think about what you'll do if there is someone out there you're actively trying to avoid, Galperin said. “But at the same time,” she added, “if being afraid causes us to just silence ourselves all the time, that's not worth it."
I managed to hide my geolocation for two whole weeks. I chased down and deleted a fair amount of information about myself. But I hadn’t gotten rid of all of it by a long shot. The worst thing was that I was beginning to feel really damn isolated—the main way I was keeping my whereabouts secure was by deliberately avoiding locations where I run into friends.
This made me see how hard it is to keep yourself absolutely safe from stalkers or just random nosy people on the internet, and made me think about which tradeoffs are worth it for me.
Galperin is quick to note that women, people of color, and those in disadvantaged communities are more likely to err on the side of caution. Unsurprisingly, the people with the most overall privilege and power are not as worried about what can happen if they share the minute details of their lives.
“We all have to decide how much risk we’re willing to accept, and when we’re willing to take that tradeoff," Galperin says. As for me, I've started thinking twice before broadcasting my travel plans to the world, but I still love checking into the gym and my favorite cafes and coworking spaces on Swarm. I save Tor for occasions where I’m deliberately trying to be stealthy, since it’s a little clunkier than I’d like for regular use -- but I use a VPN to hide my IP address when sending emails on the go.
Still, something Galperin explained stuck with me: "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens on Google is indexed forever."