Confessions of an Internet Stalker

What can strangers find out about you on the Internet? More than you think.

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Today's post is about how easy it is to violate a stranger's privacy on the Internet. But it starts with Airbnb.

I have a rental unit I advertise on Airbnb, a travel site that allows vacationers to find cheap lodgings by renting directly from their owners. Ever since that disaster last summer when a San Francisco woman rented out her apartment via Airbnb and had it throughly vandalized, I've been a little hinky about using the service. Airbnb responded by making it slightly harder for scammers to create fake profiles by "verifying" their phone numbers and social media accounts. But as I pointed out in a blog post last summer, it's a system that's still too easy to game.

This week I got a request to rent my unit via Airbnb from a young woman (I'll call her Zooey S.) who had both her phone number and her Facebook account verified by Airbnb. Even so, I found myself wanting to know more before saying yes. So I decided to find out exactly what I could find out about her, given the information provided in her profile.

Her profile contained a photo, but it was taken a good 20 years ago when she was still a small child. It also included a chummy little note that mentioned what she did for a living and a few other vague details. Otherwise all I had was her first name and last initial, the city where she lives, the last two digits of her phone number, and the fact that she had a Facebook account with more than 400 friends.

First I Googled her name and city. The first hit was a Yelp account that may or may not be hers, but in any case had little info about Zooey besides her name and a photo. (However, her only Yelp friend is a big fan of a local medical marijuana dispensary.)

Second order of business: Find her Facebook account. I used Google to do a site specific search on Facebook for anyone matching her first name and location. (In this I was aided by the fact that her first name was a bit unusual -- if she were named Heather or Kristi that would have taken much longer.) The seventh hit was a Zooey S. who lived in the right city. Was it her? Hard to tell. The friend count was about right. She had made her posts and photos public (note: a lot of partying going on in those), as well as her friends list, her favorite sports team, and her tastes in music, books, and movies; but no real information about herself, her job, education, etc. So she was at least somewhat savvy about Facebook privacy.

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