Monday, September 21, 2009

You might never upload a photo to Facebook again

I'm a heavy Internet user, so I jumped at a chance last week to attend a Webinar (that's a Web seminar, for you non-heavy users). Its purpose was to teach investigators how to use online techniques to research suspects, gang members, deadbeat parents, etc.

I learned that it's possible to use online techniques to find out information about almost anyone. Here are a few of the tips we heard:

Look at pictures that are posted by your suspect on social media sites (such as
Facebook), and study the backgrounds of the pictures. Team logos, landmarks, or other things in the pictures can indicate where your subject is living. You might see drugs in the background, worth noting if you're trying to establish drug-related connections.

Note any other people in your subject's photos. That's one way to discover gang associations or other criminal connections. Even if your subject keeps most of his uploaded information private, you might be able to find out information from his friends' postings.

We were advised to always capture information as soon as we find it (
Snagit was a recommended tool for screen captures), because the Internet constantly changes.

We learned how to refine Google searches on the web to focus and narrow down results. Using boolean operators to do searches, trying different spellings and search engines, and using cache to get archived information were some of the suggestions.

Some of the techniques will come in handy for my writing. One thing is certain--going forward, I'll be much more selective when I upload personal information and photos. And I'm also happy that I use a pen name for my writing--there's less surfacing of personal data that way.

Do you have any favorite search tricks or online research techniques? Are there any rules that you follow for uploading personal information online?


  1. My son is a former federal agent who specialized in computer forensics. He's now the director of cyber security for a company that manufactures security software for the government. His advice is to never post personal info on any site, especially your birthday, phone number, hometown, names of spouses and children, and schools/university you attended. Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes today, and with very little info, a thief can quickly put you in a world of hurt.

  2. One more tip: Use strong, long passwords. Rather than rely on passwords that you have to remember, base your password on a random keystroke pattern on your keyboard. The resulting password is almost impossible to discover and all you have to remember is the keyboard pattern.

  3. Personal Information Online:

    A CEO posted a blog about why we weren't using online tools to promote outselves. I was one of the ones who said 'too much personal information' and was pretty much told to get over it, that it was the new wave of promotion. The big problem is that there are so many places to get involved online and post information--it's very easy to lose control of it without realizing it. Or worse, post one piece of information here and another piece there, and you've given away something inportant (Sarah Palin's password, for example--remember that?).

    The best thing to do is limit the availability as much as possible and think about the information you're posting. Most people just talk about anything and never consider what someone might discover.

  4. Joe, I hadn't considered not posting school affiliations. Good point! Linda, good luck to that CEO when his identity gets stolen. He'll be in a world of hurt.

  5. Hi Kathryn.
    Great to see that you are doing well.

    Your comments reminded my of why I never post my photo on the web. I am too concerned that someone will see my drug paraphernalia or the CIA will notice my Al Qaeda connections.

    Seriously though, information on the Web can spread so quickly, and it is so easy to find, anything that is posted there might just as well be published on the front page of the L.A. Times. Besides, I think that the trivial facts of someone's personal life are generally not that interesting anyway, and much of the posting of that kind of information is a sign of narcissism.

    P.S., congratulations on the publication of your first three Fat City novels. I hope that there are many more.

  6. I dunno, folks. A little caution goes a long way. I'm a big believer in security systems and complex passwords, but I think there's a point when caution becomes paranoia, and I start to get uncomfortable. Remember in the mid-1980s when there was a kidnapper and child abuser on every street corner--even though there really wasn't? Those were the days when you were supposed to get your kid fingerprinted so that his body could be more easily identified. I wasn't a big believer in that scare, either.

    Not that identity theft doesn't happen--lord knows it happens all the time--and it has to be a massive pain in the ass when it does; but at what price security?

    For those of us who have chosen to toil in the entertainment business, contact with the public is sort of the end goal, isn't it? I WANT to be accessible to fans and potential fans. I'm an outgoing, friendly guy in real life, and I want my Internet presence to reflect that reality. I believe in the rule of reason. I believe in being approachable, and I get enough fan letters from readers who appreciate my approachability (is that a word?).

    I personally get a chuckle out of people who get all sweaty at the thought of purchasing something over the Internet, yet don't hesitate for an instant in giving it to a waiter in a restaurant. It's like people who drive a car every day, yet refuse to risk flying in an airplane. Paranoia is always very real to the one who feels it, but that doesn't mean it's rational.

    If there's a bad guy who wants to take you down, there's very little you can do to stop him (just ask the Secret Service). Certainly, that picture of your kid's graduation isn't going to make the difference.

    I know that little things add up, and as I said at the beginning, I probably am more security-conscious than most. But still . . .

    John Gilstrap

  7. As an IT professional I will tell you that if you've ever been out there in cyber world, in any fashion, I can find stuff out about you. If you've never been on the web, but owned a car, a house, went to school, had a drivers license, or had a bank account or I can find you and you will never suspect it. If you've never in anyway been "on the grid" and have hidden in the woods out of sight and with no record of existence other than the one or two people who have seen you in ten years...I can still find you...because you're in a small group of non-gridders. And when I do find you non-gridders I'll be pissed and grumpy because you made me walk too far with this heavy-ass rifle.

    That being said. Like Joe said, be careful what info you put out. Don't share too much. Don't post pics of your kids in public forums. If you are well known and known to be wealthy, don't post daily updates of where you are travelling or when you are going shopping.

    You can tell the story of your travels after you've returned home safely, but don't broadcast your next destination...unless you want to do research into kidnapping and extortion first hand.

    If you are a plane old ordinary citizen who thinks you have nothing to steal, think again. If you've got a decent credit score you are a target.

  8. In other words...don't worry too much. You're most likely going to be totally safe, unless you're not.

    Chances of identity theft are about the same as getting hit by a car in the parking lot of your favourite grocery store. And if its your time, you're going to get hit. If they want you, they'll get you.

    Sniper Saying: Don't'll just die tired.

  9. "Trivial", Brad? I think our postings are always fascinating, which must mean I'm a narcissist! [grin]

    John, you're right that we shouldn't get too paranoid about security. Mainly I was struck by how easy it is for trained investigators (or determined hackers, or stalkers) to ferret out personal information, even if a person has tried to remove himself from "the grid." Maybe security is on my mind these days because 1) Last year, my daughter clicked on a site that she thought was an online tax service, and it turned out to be a phishing site, 2) After my wallet was recently stolen, I had hundreds of dollars of attempted charges using my stolen ATM card and credit cards (I'm still waiting to see what havoc they can wreak with stolen license, health card, etc.), and 3) Years ago, someone was repeatedly depositing bad checks into my checking account, withdrawing $50-100 each time, gradually overdrawing my account.

  10. I think it's a fine line and once you chose to be accessible to fans it's hard not to at least reveal some personal info. I have my own rules about photos and information but I accept that if someone really wants to find info on me they could. I've had old boyfriends email me - they didn't get anything from what I've personally put up on my website or FB or anything like that - but from information regarding me that is available re: my previous professional life as a lawyer. There's no way I could stop that being out on the internet and it predates anything I do re: my writing - so I just have to accept it. Thankfully none of the exs were stalkers:)

  11. I am sorry that my remarks may have been misinterpreted. I wasn't referring to blogs such as this one, as there is actually a lot of good information posted here. I was really referring to users of Facebook and other types of services that post entries describing rather mundane activities in their day-to-day lives.

    On the subject of internet security, when giving out personal or private information, such as bank account or credit card numbers, you should always be sure that the web site is using SSL (Secure Socket Layer). You can tell this if the URL starts out with "https:". If you are using Internet Explorer or Firefox, you will also see a small icon that looks like a padlock in the lower right-hand corner of the window.

    If you are concerned or uncomfortable about making online purchases, make sure that you have the type of bank or CC account that allows you to look online for your recent activity. If there is any fraud going on, you can put a stop to it immediately without being held responsible for any unauthorized charges.

  12. The trouble with paranoia is: where does it all end? As an author of crime thrillers (have I given too much away?) I’m always thinking “What if?” All my books start with that one question. But I couldn’t live my real life on that basis. What if my car breaks down - on a deserted road at night, when my phone's out of charge? What if I lose my keys? What if someone steals my identity? - Never mind photos, you can see a video of me reading a short extract from my new book, Cut Short, on youtube . . . With all those questions running round in my head, I'd hardly dare leave the house if I didn't stick to thinking about fiction!

  13. Basil, you gave me an idea for a name for a new group: "Grumpy Off-Gridders," lol.

    Clare, I suggest changing names frequently to avoid online ex's. Doesn't always work, though!

    Brad, thanks for your input, I was just yanking your chain (as I am wont to do).

    Leigh, I will check out your video on YouTube, it sounds interesting.