I Found Everything With A First Name and Phone Number

One of the benefits of the internet is that information is much more accessible and easily findable than ever before.

One of the worst things about the internet is that information is much more accessible and easily findable than ever before.

Before you start saying "this doesn’t apply to me"… it does. A____ thought the same thing, until I showed them the screenshot below. And if it still somehow does not apply to you, it sure does apply to someone you care about.

Because all it took was a first name and a phone number.

This is even more vital than when I started talking about this twelve years ago (though my practical advice still holds true). In this age where identity theft and doxxing are regular occurrences, unsolicited dick pics and stalkers are somehow still a thing, and supposed "security questions" are usually based on historical details (making you vulnerable to social engineering hacks)… well, you might want to keep some of your information private, and only have the information you want to have shared be out there available to the most casual searcher.

I previously gave a real-life example of where Google was autofilling information and revealing more than was intended. Today’s post is about something far, far worse, and much more of a pain in the rear to take care of.

I met A____ just this week [1], and they gave me their first name and phone number. We hit it off well, and I thought I’d test to see how the state of privacy had changed since I wrote about the Google autofill issues.

I was horrified.

The reason why I’m so shocked – and completely creeped out by these sites is because of this screenshot right here:

I left the first letter of the first name and the first and last digits of the phone unblurred so you all can see that they are connected.

In less than half a second, with just a first name and phone number, I was able to find their full name, their family member, their place of employment (via email address), and their home address.

Without leaving the search results screen on Google.

Let me repeat that. I found all that information before looking at any of the creepy people search sites. There was more once I clicked through – without paying a cent. Presumably, I could have turned up even more if I wanted to pay money. To give you an idea of exactly how much and how detailed of information I found without paying anything: I couldn’t use a single screenshot from the actual sites without blurring pretty much everything except for the site logo.

Oh, sure, at least one of those sites has a "Dos and Don’ts" page… Which is obviously unenforceable and is meant to just cover the company’s liability, not to protect people.

Yes, getting this information off these sites is something like playing whack-a-mole. For the three relevant ones that came up for this particular search:

There are other, more extensive lists of how to remove yourself from many more sites. In order, I’d use:

I do not have a great solution here, particularly if you’re using something like a dating app, aside from the guide I wrote that was published in the SFWA Bulletin (presented with permission at https://app.box.com/file/973024254286?s=2kjcelclbl6wlniao7jvr15s8xkpob0r). The messaging on those platforms is frequently garbage, but switching to phone numbers can open you up to this kind of accidental exposure. You can still use Google Voice or Skype (or Twilio, though that’s not really the intended purpose) to get a "virtual" phone number that you give out.

There are services that are not tied to your phone number such as Kik or Snapchat, or that have secure messaging such as Signal or Telegram [2]. Cross platform support varies wildly between these, particularly if you’re using anything other than their "official" app.

I’m explicitly excluding anything Meta-related (Facebook Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp) because while that is not tied to your phone number (necessarily), Meta has such a bad history with privacy related things, and so much personal data is on Facebook, that if you’re concerned about privacy, those are a bad choice.

In the meantime, at least hit the biggest data collectors listed in "Doxing defense" above, be mindful of who you give what information to, and try to see how much information you can find out about yourself with only one or two bits of data – like a name and profession, or name and phone number.

Stay safe out there.

Featured Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

[1] This is posted with their permission, after they okayed the post and screenshots.
[2] You can see a comparison of Signal and Telegram here: https://nerdschalk.com/is-signal-the-best-app-for-privacy/

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