Nine things to do—right now—to keep your personal data private

Nine things to do—right now—to keep your personal data private
Image: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File
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Imagine someone wants to know as much about you as they possibly can. This imaginary ill-intentioned person has access only to the internet. And they know only your name, and, perhaps, your employer, or the city in which you live, or your middle initial, or your approximate age. How much information do you imagine they can gather in, say, an hour’s time? What if they have an entire day to devote to this effort? Or more? Unless you’ve protected yourself, the answer is almost definitely a lot.

This week, I sought out volunteers for this experiment, asking on Twitter if anyone wanted to share only their name so I could experiment with what I could dig up in just an hour. I promised I wouldn’t share what I found publicly.

With only a first and last name, I went to Google and got to work. For some individuals, bestowed by their parents with relatively common first names and by their ancestors with relatively common last names, an hour wasn’t enough time to gather much. But for those with less common names, an hour can be enough time to gather a significant amount of information. Names, ages, dates of birth of children, grandchildren. Baby photos. Yearbook photos. Divorce records. Wedding registries. Voting records. Mugshots. And, of course, that Pinterest board full of recipes you’ve never actually taken the time to cook. Oh wait – your Instagram shows you actually did make that vegetarian chili not once, but twice. Your mom loved it. Nice work.

Fortunately, you can make it a hell of a lot harder for people trying to spy on you. To start, here are my tips on what you can do, today, to make yourself less of an easy target:

Lock. Down. Your. Facebook. I don’t mean “complete the Facebook privacy check”. The only photo you post on Facebook that should be available to anyone who isn’t in your friends list is your profile photo. Not ALL your profile photos. Just the current one. Delete any “featured photos”. Either don’t let anyone tag you in photos, or restrict the extent to which they can. This can take hours, btw, but it’s worth it. Journalists regularly use photos culled from Facebook. And they can take a photo of you, posted by, say, your sister-in-law, just as easily as they can take a photo posted of you by you. Now, you might ask, how would they find my sister-in-law? Well, more often than not, there’s a member of your family who has opted to list every member of his/her extended family on their Facebook profile. Don’t do this. Also, your friends list: Your friends list is probably the best source of information about you. Even if your profile doesn’t show the city in which you live, I can almost guarantee you I can figure it out if your friends list is public. The only person who should be able to see who you’re friends with on Facebook is you. Any public post you comment on is public. I can find your comment. Easily. If you don’t believe me, spend a little time on

Your Instagram should be private. Are you a paid social media influencer? No? Then why is your Instagram account public? No, really, why?

Scrub your Twitter. The accounts that are easy to glean quick personal information are often the accounts that are used the least. If you follow 11 users on Twitter, and 3 are your relatives and one is an elementary school, I’m going to guess you either teach at that school, went to that school, or your child goes to that school. (One thing I do recommend, provided your employer is cool with it, is Tweetdelete. The further back I can scroll in your tweets, the more opportunities I have to gather information. Tweetdelete is a tool that sets your tweets to delete automatically on a schedule of your choosing. You can also mass purge tweets without deleting your account.)

Disconnect your Pinterest account from your social media accounts. Oh, and, your Pinterest account has a separate board for every one of your children’s birthday parties. Thanks! Now I know the names of your kids and their ages. Also, thanks for the board showing every slow cooker recipe you’ll never try. You can actually leave that one up, since literally every single person on Pinterest has a board of slow cooker recipes.

Keep your weird Amazon WishLists to yourself. Your Amazon wish-list of books about gambling addiction is curious. Also this wish-list of Hitler biographies. The number of people who have public Amazon wish-lists containing the strangest of items is staggering.

Kill that MySpace page. It’s 2019. Why am I scrolling through your MySpace album? Because it’s still online, that’s why. Your group of friends from 2003 looks pretty cool, but why are you guys doing drugs in all these photos? Delete your Myspace.

Careful with the LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a fine place to list basic information about your career accomplishments. But probably don’t brag about the $50 million marketing budget you oversaw, since you probably signed an NDA. You graduated from Harvard. Congrats! Thanks for telling me the year you graduated. Now I know your approximate age.

Watch the life-event notices. Wedding announcements are a great way to glean personal information, as are wedding/birth announcements published in alumni magazines and local newspapers. So while that New York Times wedding announcement might seem like a good idea at the time, think twice before you go for it, because once it’s published, it’s there forever.

Do some digging on Trust me when I tell you that a vast number of people have relatives who have flooded with photos of their extended families. So even if you haven’t posted anything, it’s worth checking if anyone else has. (The same goes for other genealogy sites.)

Ok. That’s a good start. Next week, we’ll get into all the information data companies have posted about you—and how you can opt out. Let’s be careful out there.