13 INVESTIGATES: All About You - Alabamas13.com WVTM-TV Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: All About You

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BIRMINGHAM, AL - The internet has become a huge part of most people's lives.  We pay our bills online, shop online even reconnect with long lost friends on the web.  With all that information floating around out there, have you ever wondered how much someone could find out about you?  You might be surprised as we found out when Alabama's 13 Investigates: All About You. 

There’s so much information available at the click of a mouse.  These days it's easy to find out just about anything you want to know online.  But how much of that information is all about you?  Most people have googled their own name but Dr. Ragib Hasan, a computer science professor at UAB, says what that search shows you is just the tip of the information iceberg.  “I'm really worried they're not completely aware how much information is out there”, says Dr. Hasan. 

To see more of the iceberg, anyone can do a deep web search.  There are plenty of websites, like www.spokeo.com or www.pipl.com, that dig into what's called the “invisible web”.  But Dr. Hasan says we've entered the age of big data and that's the real threat.  “These companies have massive cloud based data bases and processing engines, data mining engines, that they can combine all this information.”

Data mining software can gather information from many data bases, process it and find correlations or patterns.  Companies weave together that information to form a pretty clear picture all about you.  We asked Dr. Hasan to show some Alabama's 13 employees what he could discover about them using nothing but their name.

It only took a minute to shock Valerie Wilson, “Oh my God, it has my brother in laws, my mother in law, how in the world? That's crazy!  How do they know my uncle?  Gosh,wow!”

Cynthia Isom couldn’t believe it was so easy to see the exact amount she had donated to a charity.  “That's pretty cool, I had no idea.” 

Dr. Hasan discovered a lot about photographer Michael Tartt’s relatives.  “That's actually my dad and that's me.”  He also found out his exact age which could help him dig up even more information.

Stacy Gunn was shocked Dr, Hasan discovered an address for her sister and brother in law.  She says she lived with them for only 3 months over the summer.  Dr. Hasan says, that’s the power of data mining, “data mining allows them to link these two records, her brother in law who has a different name but has a shared relative her sister.”

So where does all that information come from?  Much of it is gathered from public records, like tax records, some is gleaned from information you voluntarily give when you fill out a credit application or sign up for something online and put a checkmark in that little "agree" box. 

“You might think that you are submitting information to a private company but then when you check on “I agree”, in the small print you might have some text that says this information might be sold to third parties”, says Dr. Hasan. 

Plus, these days many people willingly put out a lot of personal information on social media, like facebook and twitter, Instagram and pinterest.  That’s why its not difficult for a company or a criminal to see pictures of you and your loved ones, to figure out who you are, where you live, who you might be related to, what your interests are, where you work, how much money you make and when you'll be out of town. 

So what can you do about it?  Dr. Hasan says there are companies that claim they can remove your information from the internet, but that's not really true because, “anything that goes out on the internet stays there forever… Its virtually impossible to remove information about you , details about you, from online websites.”  That's because if any picture or information that’s public for even just a minute, has  most likely already been copied or cached all over the internet.

But Dr. Hasan says you can be more cautious moving forward.  He says if you're filling out a form either online or on paper, that's asking for a lot of details, you should be suspicious and don't be afraid to ask a company why they need that information.   He says you should also be wary of using your mother's maiden name for password authentication.  Some sites might require the information to use as a way to confirm who you are in the event you forget your password, but he showed us how easy it is t find that information online.  So he suggests using a fake maiden name instead. “Just make sure it's something you can remember.”

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