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Facebook, Twitter soldier spy

The bar’s hopping. The guy’s hot. She’s curious. He’s mysterious. The bathroom stall becomes her office, the smartphone her secretary.

tech reviews Updated: May 11, 2010 18:10 IST
Patrick May

The bar’s hopping. The guy’s hot. She’s curious. He’s mysterious. The bathroom stall becomes her office, the smartphone her secretary. And using a tech tool like DateCheck that can scope out a potential partner’s background, she’s cleared him for a romantic go-ahead.

Case closed From the ladies room to the chat room to the tweet-stream in the next cubicle, we have become a society of amateur spies. With a burgeoning arsenal of websites offering cheap tricks to sniff out subterfuge, abetted by multitudes baring their souls on Facebook, everyday life has become a realm of nonstop intrigue: Spouses are snooping, business competitors are spying, sexting celebrities are apologising. “Everyone’s checking out everyone else,” says Wolfgang Kandek of Qualys, a California-based firm that helps Facebook store their confidential data. “Once you put information online, it’s there forever. So you can look someone up on Facebook, look at their house on Google Earth, and follow them around on Twitter.”

Leaving a trail behind Our vital statistics stretch behind us like vapour trails — cellphone records, email accounts, family photos pasted all over Flickr for the world to see. Technology has brought inexpensive spy gadgets that would make the Hardy Boys squeal with delight. And the Internet spits out more snooping websites every day, with names like PeekYou, iSearch and Whozat. Investigators and Internet security experts report an ever-expanding arsenal of tech spy tools and growing numbers of ordinary citizens using them. The two trends — more snooping and more publicising our lives online — have dovetailed to create a background-checking free-for-all. And while many of the websites can swiftly and benignly link you to an old classmate, the same technology raises questions about privacy for ordinary citizens whose online information may not be as secure as they think.

Internet security expert Ryan Barnett says many users aren’t connecting the dots when they give up their birth date and email address at multiple way stations across the Internet. “A lot of users volunteering all these separate bits of information don’t think about all of it together in totality” he says. “People think this social-networking stuff is so cool, but they don’t think about what’s going on behind the scenes.”

Diane, a 35-year-old San Jose schoolteacher and single mother of three, started poking around her fiance’s cell after she noticed he was suddenly dressing better and staying out all night with friends. Soon she was hooked. Suspicious phone numbers led her quickly to the computer. “I decided to go online and see if I could do a phone trace at a site like peoplefinder.com.” Diane, eventually obtained incriminating photos of her fiance and his lover and confronted him, then kicked him out.
–MCT