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Secrets on the internet

Even the CIA aren't safe. Here is how to protect your privacy online

The Chicago Times identified 2,653 covert CIA operatives using nothing more than the internet and some basic sleuthing skills. They also discovered dozens of front organisations and secret CIA facilities.

Although they did not reveal any names or details of what they learned, it is a demonstration of the power of the internet to cut through even the thickest veils of secrecy.

The question is: how good are you at protecting your secrets? They don't have to be big, scary secrets to be worth protecting. For example:

Most companies don't like outsiders to have access to names of key staff for fear of head hunters.

Some ecommerce companies go to great lengths to stop people calling them. It's cheaper to answer questions by email than to have a call centre.

Small businesses, working from home, might want to keep their address quiet to protect their family's privacy

However, it is surprisingly easy to find a lot of this information. I used a whois server to look up the domain Microsoft.co.uk. This revealed their address and company number. I then went to Companies House and bought reports on the company for a couple of pounds. Bob's your uncle: I now have directors' names and home addresses plus financial information about the company. To sew it up, BT's online phonebook makes it easy to find telephone numbers.

Quote�Even when people try to conceal identities, they can be tracked down�End Quote

Even when people try very hard to conceal their identities online, it can be possible to track them down. Last August, Dateline, an American TV, identified and confronted a porn spammer.

For a little more money I can use commercial services to get extensive, cross-referenced information about individuals and businesses.

There are other ways to find out information. The Data Protection Act gives you a right to know what personal information organisations and businesses are storing about you. The Freedom of Information Act gives you the ability to get information from public bodies and government departments.

There are ways to protect your privacy and business information online:

Decide how much information you are prepared to make public and what you'd like to keep out of the public domain.

Remember, once it's on the internet you have very little control over it and even if you decide to remove it later, search engine caches, other websites and Archive.org may have copies you can't delete.

Review everything that you publish on websites to make sure you do not inadvertently disclose information you would rather keep private. For example, be especially wary of personal information like names and addresses.

Think about the information you disclose through domain name registrations, statutory returns, telephone directories, trade directories, etc.

Know your rights and responsibilities under the Data Protection Act.

Check the information that is stored about you and your business on publicly-accessible services and correct any mistakes.

What next?

Data protection probably isn't a core part of your business. But ignore it and you could end up with a hefty fine - or worse. The basics are fairly straightforward; here's what you need to know.

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