I can see you!

Probably one of the most widespread, yet also most overlooked phenomena of the Internet Age is that almost everybody has at least a vague idea of the incredible amount of information that can be found online, while hardly anyone can imagine that he/she is leaving footprints in Data Desert anyone can find without being a hacker.

Some days ago, for example, I met the sister of a friend of mine. Being of Indian descent (India in the Orient, that is), her name is not exactly an everyday name one would stumble across at every corner of the street. Just for fun, I googled her name, and I instantly knew what she was studying, at which university, and some other details. Nothing spectacular. The next time I met her, I casually mentioned what I knew and she was utterly surprised.

At another occasion, when I was working on a question for Google Answers, I started with the name of a little-known, highly specialized medical journal a customer desired to contact. After half an hour, I did not only know who the publisher was, I also had his exact address, a photo of his house and I knew what kind of wood the floor in his living room is made of, to mention only some things. And I'm pretty sure I could have found out even more about him.

It is a bit frightening how much information about ordinary private individuals you can find if you only know how to search for it and how to combine the bits and pieces. And the amount of information puzzle pieces available to the experienced online researcher seems to be growing enormously. Next time you walk in the street, look at the people around you and ask yourself: Do they have the slightest idea of what you could find out about many of them, without even having to leave your computer desk at home?

Maybe it's better they don't know. Bismarck once said: “People can sleep peacefully as long as they do not know how sausages and politics are made.” And what can be found about them on the Web, I'd like to add.

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