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5 shocking new threats to your personal data

Mike Elgan | Feb. 6, 2017
I don't mean to alarm you, but these trends make panic sound like a good idea

And finally, hackers can use online photos as the starting point, rather than targeting specific people. It could be difficult to target a specific person, because you'd have to go looking for high-quality photos of that person's fingers. But if your starting point is all the high-resolution photos of fingers on, say, Google Images, then you could potentially harvest hundreds of thousands of prints efficiently.

I've scanned my own private Google Photos trove and found plenty of fingerprint-friendly photos. If I had made them public, a malicious and resourceful person could use multiple photos to re-create my fingerprints.

2. Political trolls 'win arguments' by publishing your personal data

In this heated political season, with vitriol lobbed from one filter bubble to the next, acrimony rules the social web. The latest trend in online political arguments is doxing, which is the act of exposing someone's personal information online.

Some kinds of information, such as phone numbers and home addresses, are easy to find online and also conducive to harassment. One hater doxes, and a hundred others call with death or bomb threats or engage in swatting, where you call the police and falsely report that a violent confrontation is underway at someone's home, leading the police to send the SWAT team to that address.

The problem recently got so serious on Reddit that the site deleted and banned the r/altright and r/alternativeright subreddits. Reddit was unable to curb doxing in the subreddits in the usual ways, so it resorted to the nuclear option and terminated them.

Sadly, doxable personal information is trivially easy to find online because...

3. Genealogy sites have already posted your personal information online

Personal information sites, including genealogy and "people search" sites, have been around for years.

The business model has long been to tease people with the kinds of information the sites could provide, and then require interested parties to pay to get the full set of data.

But now, two trends have popped up that should freak you out.

The first is the emergence of a personal information super site called Family Tree Now. The site gives away free the kind of information that others have been charging for. This caused a great deal of concern last month after a woman tweeted about the previously obscure site. If you simply enter a name and the state where that person lives, Family Tree Now can often tell you the individual's other family members, along with their ages and current and previous home addresses.

The second trend is that some "people search" sites use social engineering to get you to give them information, instead of the other way around. For example, the site TruthFinder asks questions throughout the process, claiming that your answers will help it give you better data. In fact, TruthFinder is getting information from you.


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