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AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File

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

Hilary Sargent
Member exclusive by Hilary Sargent

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.