We Are Unaware of Our Online Info, Though Half of Us Have Googled Ourselves

December 18, 2007

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Some 47% of internet users have searched for their own name online, but few regularly monitor their online presence – even as 53% of internet users say they have searched for info about personal and business contacts, according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project report.

In 2002, just 22% of internet users had searched online for their own name, but since then the explosion of blogs, YouTube, Flickr, and online social-network profiles have increased the size of people’s “digital footprints,” Pew said.

The report, “Digital Footprints: Online identity management and search in the age of transparency” (pdf) is based on a Dec. 2006 national telephone survey of 2,373 adults, of whom 1,623 are internet users.

Teens are more likely to cover their online tracks – for example, among those who use social-networking sites, a higher percentage of teens than adults restrict access to their profiles.

Most internet users are unconcerned about the extent of the data available about them online:

  • 60% of internet users say they are not worried about how much information is available about them online.
  • 38% of internet users say they have taken steps to limit the amount of online information that is available about them.

But it could be that they are simply unaware:

  • Roughly one-third of internet users say the following pieces of information are available online: their email address, home address, home phone number or their employer.
  • One-fourth of internet users say a photo, names of groups they belong to, or things they have written that have their name on it appear online.
  • Few internet users say their political affiliation, cell phone number, or video appear online.


In interviews with the Pew Internet Project, privacy advocates and professional researchers argued that many of these data points are indeed available about most people, either on the open Web or in select online databases.

When asked about eight different groups of people one might search for online – ranging from family and friends to romantic interests and business colleagues – 53% of adult internet users said they had looked for information connected to at least one of these groups.

These searches for others are often focused on basic contact information, but can be wide-ranging:


  • 72% of people searchers have sought contact information online.
  • 37% of people searchers look to the web for information about someone’s professional accomplishments or interests.
  • 33% of people searchers have sought out someone’s profile on a social and professional networking site.
  • 31% have searched for someone’s photo.
  • 31% have searched for someone else’s public records, such as real estate transactions, divorce proceedings, bankruptcies or other legal actions.
  • 28% have searched for someone’s personal background information.

“Nostalgia seems to motivate quite a few internet users. The most popular search target is someone from the past – an old friend, an old flame, or a former colleague,” said Susannah Fox, a coauthor of the report. “These findings provide powerful evidence of the internet’s capacity to reunite and reignite social connections.”


“One-third of internet users say they have searched for information about someone with whom they have lost touch. And one in five internet users say someone has reached out to reconnect with them after finding their contact information online,” Fox said.

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