Everyone these days, especially college students, connects to their world a multitude of different ways: Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, multiple email addresses, and not to mention the ubiquitous smartphone. What very few people stop to consider is the footprints they are leaving all over the internet, and how easily a person with the right training and experience can exploit those clues to find your personal information and even your physical location. Michele Stuart is one of those people—luckily she is one of the good guys, a licensed private investigator who works with law enforcement to track down criminals through the internet. On April 2, Stuart shared her skills with students and law enforcement officials from across the state in a seminar with a simple title “Internet Profiling” and frightening implications.

From social media to cell phones, Stuart broke down the ways that people can be identified and tracked through the internet—not just for investigative purposes, although they certainly do have their applications in law enforcement, but also to help people protect themselves.

Our phones hold a huge amount of private information about ourselves and our friends, but few people make the effort to protect them. Stuart revealed that many applications (especially the thousands of third-party flashlight applications on the Android market) have no purpose except to steal and share our private communications and contacts lists. Even legitimate applications can be compromised by hackers—when was the last time you upgraded Angry Birds without a second thought? You might have downloaded one of the most widespread malware applications in the world on your last update.

Stuart went on to tackle social media. She showed the audience a variety of databases she uses to identify suspect’s blogs and social media sites, and the ways she exploits these websites to find out further information about the suspect. From determining a person’s exact location from their last tweet to pulling up cached blogs from decades before, Stuart showed off open source profiling techniques that can make an investigator’s life much easier. Combined with some traditional open sources like public records and a little ingenuity, Stuart can take a person’s name and find out their whole life story.

As serious of a subject as this can be, Stuart still found many ways to insert light-hearted humor into her presentation. She tackled internet profiling with humor and charisma, and those in attendance walked away with a wealth of information on how to protect themselves from prying eyes online.

Stuart recommended a Firefox add-on called Collusion, which identifies which websites are tracking you online. This add-on can be combined with Ghostery [www.ghostery.com] to provide an easy way to deny unknown websites from following your every move. Beyond that, Stuart recommends the simple things that people rarely do, such as password protecting phones, computers, and website logins securely, keeping social media down to a minimum, and never posting anything online that you might regret later. Although there may be no such thing as perfect protection on today’s internet, adopting some safe practices can go a long ways in protecting yourself online.

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