More Publicity = Less Privacy

Following up after a recent speech I gave to his group, one attendee contacted me via email and said that while networking online sounds interesting, and even possibly effective, it can also have some downsides if legitimate information being exchanged between the online networkers can get into the hands of “undesirables”. He was very concerned about privacy issues in the context of networking online.

I decided to prove a point to him that if you want to become well-known in your field, to Get Slightly Famous, then you have to accept that your life is going to become much more public. Now, I’m no private detective, and definitely not a hacker, but within five minutes, I knew his address, his phone number, his approximate age, his income bracket, two former employers, the position he held at them, and his bosses’ names there.

Have you typed your phone number into Google lately? Odds are it produces a map to your house. Or your name and city? Unless you’re unlisted (and have been for some time), it produces your phone number, address, and a map. Now, you can request that this information be removed from Google, but that same information is still available on dozens and dozens of other sites, each of whom has to be contacted individually. If you have your own web site, your address, e-mail, and phone number are most likely available to the general public. Once they’ve got your address, many local property tax authorities have all their records online, and people can find out who owns the property you live in.

And that’s just if you haven’t tried to be in the public eye. If you’ve been prominent in your field, your name is probably scattered across dozens, if not hundreds, or even thousands of Web sites. Now, maybe not a lot of personal information is in those references, but the names of your former employers, college, and even high school very likely are. Combine that with the information above, and you can see that unless you’ve been a hermit, your life is already probably more public than you realize.

Given this, you have three possible choices:
a) Don’t worry about it at all.
b) Do everything you possibly can to protect your privacy.
c) Strike some sort of sensible balance in which you take reasonable, low-effort precautions and just get comfortable with the rest of it.

I choose option (c). For me, one of the keys to making peace with this is to realize that none of this information really ever was private in the first place – it just took a lot more work to make the connections. Reverse telephone books were around for years befor the popularity of personal computers. CD-ROMs with that capability were first published in the late 80’s, shortly after the invention of the CD-ROM. Other records have been available at the courthouse or the public library for anyone so inclined to go find it.

The second key was knowing that even as easy the Web makes it to find out personal information about me, it’s just as easy for them to find it out about someone else. It makes me no more likely to be a target than anyone else.

And the third key was to understand that it’s just as easy, if not easier, for criminals to target you in the real world as online. If they want to know when you’re home and when you’re not, they’ll case your house, not try to learn what meetings you go to online. In most cases of credit card fraud, the numbers are stolen by store clerks, not hackers.

Once you’ve come to terms with these limitations on privacy, here are some simple steps you can take to maintain a reasonable degree of privacy:

  • Protect your Social Security Number. There is almost never a valid reason to give it out online.
  • Make sure your home phone is unlisted with your local phone company.
  • Don’t list your home address, home or cell phone numbers in online résumés or other publicly viewable Web sites.
  • If you’re job hunting, especially if you’re currently employed, you should seriously consider whether you want your résumé on the large job boards like Monster at all. If you do post it, be sure to date it.
  • If you office out of your home, get a post office box and use it for your business correspondence, domain name registration, etc.
  • Don’t mention your spouse or children by name in a public forum.
  • Use forms on your website for visitors to e-mail you,rather than direct links to your e-mail address.
  • Use a different e-mail address for public postings than you use for private, trusted correspondence. This is commonly known as a spam-catcher.

With a little effort and thought, you can protect your personal privacy while still maintaining a highly public personal business presence.