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The Privacy Lawyer: Here's To Happy, Safe Holidays

How do you find out if your family's personal information is on the Web when it shouldn't be? Parry Aftab offers a how-to for seeing what personal information is out there, and suggestions for getting it removed.

As the holidays approach, many of us are buying new and faster computers for our family, using new and faster access. I thought that in preparation for the holidays and increased surfing and sharing personal information with all those E-commerce sites out there I would share some online safety, privacy, and security tips with you.

While I am a privacy and security lawyer in my for-profit role, I'm also an online safety and privacy advocate. In my pro-bono time I run the world's largest online safety group, WiredSafety. We have thousands of unpaid volunteers (including me) who help protect others online, teach them how to surf safely and responsibly and enjoy the Internet without giving up their privacy and security. (You may have known us under our former name of Cyberangels. Since the Guardian Angels (the group with the red berets) own the rights to that name, we changed ours.) Our specially-trained volunteers assist victims of cybercrime and abuse, help find and report child pornography online, and find Internet predators. We help protect the Internet from cyberterrorists and malicious code and we assist and train law-enforcement agencies. Many of the volunteers are IT staff and managers and InformationWeek readers just like you.

But in addition to being IT experts, and business managers, we're also parents, grandparents, consumers, and gamers and spend a great deal of time online for fun. Hopefully this will help make you a bit more savvy and help you keep you and your family a bit safer online.

Google Yourself!
No, we haven't changed our policy on using inappropriate language. Google is the search engine and information-gathering phenomenon that collects bits and pieces of information available online. Our kids have dubbed searching for yourself or others you have met, or want to meet, online as "googling" someone.

As more and more of us use the Internet to communicate and share our ideas, more and more of our personal information is posted online. Perhaps it's a profile you put up years ago that still exists. Maybe you signed up for a free messaging service online and didn't check the privacy box when the registration application was completed. On a bad day, you may have criticized your boss or your spouse or significant other. Did you check Web sites for mortgage information or look for a new home? Did you register at a Web site or post in a public forum? Have your kids? What are they sharing online with Web sites and in public with strangers? It's time you found out for sure.

The ramifications of having your personal information posted online can be very serious. Just think about it. Is your telephone number listed in the United States and have you ever given it out online? If so, anyone who wants to can find out where you live and get a map to your front door. This holds true for your children as well. Even though laws exist in the United States to prevent Web sites from knowingly collecting information from our preteens, they've learned how to get around the law by saying they are 13 or 14, or 27.

Who knows what they've given away online? As parents, we better know! And with identity theft growing by the minute, we need to guard our personal information carefully, online and off. Finally, at least one person was killed by a stalker who broadcast his intentions online, in advance of the murder. Had someone sought out her personal-information postings online and known about the threat, her life might have been saved.

OK, now you're convinced. You're ready to google yourself and your family members (and perhaps your boyfriend or girlfriend or boss, and that neighbor you aren't crazy about). What do you do?

First you go to Google at www.google.com. Type in your full name, but in quotes--like this "Parry Aftab." Then click Google search. All the references to you, or someone else with the same name, will come up. Search for your E-mail address or IM screen name as well (making sure to include the full E-mail address, such as Parry@Aftab.com, or ParryAftab@aol.com, not just the section before the @ sign). Do the same with your nickname, and then your telephone numbers, mobile numbers, and street address, remembering to keep the quotation marks around anything you need to find in one phrase, exactly as you typed it. Otherwise, the search engine will pick up every reference to Parry and to Aftab on the Web. Now google your kids and their telephone numbers, E-mail addresses, and IM screen names as well. (You may have to check with them for all their screen names and E-mail addresses.)

Next, you need to search for newsgroup postings about you or your loved ones. You can do that by clicking on "groups" above the search screen on Google. Newsgroups are part of the Internet, but separate from the Web. They are much older than the Web-friendly clickable content and where more aggressive and heated communications are often posted. (Note that getting anything removed from a newsgroup is almost impossible unless there is a direct threat to your safety, or a child is involved. Even then, it's very difficult.)

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