Monday 19 March 2018

What my online 
profile reveals to strangers who pry

Never upload anything I wouldn't want my mother, aunts and young nieces and nephews to see.
Never upload anything I wouldn't want my mother, aunts and young nieces and nephews to see.
Sarah Stack
Sarah Stack

Sarah Stack

I've always thought that I'm fairly private about myself online. Those so-called Facebook contacts I'm friends with would probably disagree.

But when it comes to social networking, or anywhere in the big bad world of the web, I have one simple rule. Never upload anything I wouldn't want my mother, aunts and young nieces and nephews to see.

And luckily I've never woken up fretting too much over what's been posted during a boozy night before.I'm not naive enough to think anything on-line is actually really private. If someone wants it, they'll get it and use it.

My privacy settings are adequate enough for me. I want old friends to be able to find me, some posts are public but the majority are for "friends only". Unlike others, most of my Facebook friends are in fact genuine real life pals.

Even my Twitter posts are kept to a minimum…. not because of any paranoia over privacy fears, but because it simply does not dawn on me to automatically share where I am and what I'm doing with the world. Like does anyone really care what I've eaten for breakfast?? (It was porridge, a banana and two much needed mugs of coffees if you do!).

So it was with great interest, and a little bit of apprehension, that I agreed for IT forensic scientist Dr Vivienne Mee to see what she could uncover about me online.

Dr Mee, who runs VMForensics, admitted that given how adamant I was about my security she was really hoping to get something good "to give me a good scare". As a specialist in the field of IT forensics and electronic discovery, she uncovers cyber crime, has been involved in several high-profile investigations and court cases, and is regularly called in by firms for in-house probes in to employees accused of misdemeanours or breaching on-line rules So what did she get on me? With my work email address, the fact I live in Dublin, and a rough age bracket (mid 30s-ish!) off she went. She also knew what I looked like having met for a coffee.

After 15 years of journalism in two regional UK titles and an international news wire, and six months at the Irish Independent, I knew I was "googleable" or "bingable" (is that a word yet?) but how much was about me as opposed to stories I've written? A name sake who works for a broadcaster did pop up and cause some confusion at the start.

For three to four hours she scoured search engines, local newspaper sites and even went through profiles on eight or nine dating websites. Nothing. Frustrated at finding any dirt on me she took a break and came back to it. Again nothing.

The result…. apparently I'm a lot more IT security savvy than most, which will amuse some considering I only figured out how to work a touch screen phone for the first time a few months ago.

Personally, I'm not sure if it's because I'm even more boring and mundane than I imagined, or maybe covering some of the most sinister criminal court cases in the country has made me overly aware that big brother is always watching you. Dr Mee insists what she did find was without any kind of tracking software or creating false social network profiles which she could use to snoop on me and try to befriend me. She simply searched like any normal Joe Soap could up. No hacking involved.

Most of what was discovered was information I had knowingly posted publically on Twitter. It was obvious I was going to Westport Festival a few weeks ago, she said, and apparently a perpetrator could have been there lying in wait for me there. An eight-hour round trip? I doubt it.

Photos of me doing the women's mini-marathon with my sisters popped-up, but our on-line presence meant we raised more than €1,000 for St Michael's House where my youngster sister is a resident.

She could tell me what town I live in, where I used to work and when I moved to the Irish Independent. Again, nothing I'm overly secretive about. Oh, and that I lost my monthly rail ticket a few months ago (something I had a good 
old rant about  as €150 went down the swanny).But what about more private stuff?She revealed where a close relative's funeral had been held more than eight years ago (thanks to - which appears to be the 21st century version of a good gossip at the grocery counter), and from there she found the names of my siblings. Back on Facebook she traced my brother, and his interest in photography, but had no idea he was living in the US. And there was nothing on one of my sisters, which I'm even more impressed about as I set up her security settings.

There was no link to a niece or nephew there, of which there are plenty, which to me was a clear sign that they are also security conscious online. Instead, following a search of sports day in Dublin schools, De Mee wrongly believed I could be related to a schoolgirl in Killiney.Other information I presumed would have popped up, including holidays I've been on with avid Facebookers, didn't.

While I thought most of what she found was pretty innocent, she took another view. People have apparently had fake profiles maliciously posted on web sites with even less information."I wanted to find something juicy because you said I wouldn't find anything, and I was surprised at how little I found," Dr Mee admitted afterwards, stressing that she never delved too much in to family or friends."

Although you may think not a lot was found, if someone wanted to rob your identity, or get more information on you through the social media they could get quite a bit of information readily available," she warned."Next tasks for a perpetrator would be set-up online accounts and friend you, and perhaps social engineer more information from you or your family."They could be physically following you home on the train/dart and 
going through your rubbish on bin day to get more information such as PPS number etc," she added.

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