DMM Mailbag: When You Google Someone, Will They Know?

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What Does Googling Get You?
You can “Google”, or do a web search, on anyone. It’s not illegal, and in my opinion there’s nothing wrong with it. After all, when we’re talking about ordinary people (as opposed to famous people, whose private stuff becomes unexpectedly public in hacks all the time) the only results you’ll get are for pages, photos, text and records that are already available to the public, and things the person him- or herself has chosen to make public.

Sometimes it’s not only reasonable to Google someone, but necessary. Any situation where a background check would be reasonable is a reasonable candidate for a Google search. Maybe you’re thinking about going into business with someone, hiring a new caregiver for your kids, renting your home to a boarder while you’re out of town, et cetera. Or maybe you’re involved in a bitter legal battle and know the other person is hiding assets or misrepresenting other important facts in order to hurt your case. Googling can put your mind at ease, or provide you with some additional questions that need asking.

Google: it’s not just for crazy girlfriends and stalker boyfriends anymore.

 

Your House On Google Maps

 

“Is It Secret, Is It Safe?”

For the most part, for most people, yes. While it’s true that even the most basic website statistics program will list the number of people who came to a given web page or site from a Google search results link, and that most of them will also list each visitor’s IP (Internet Protocol) address, the IP address does not identify you by name, physical street address, nor even necessarily by your city or even state.

See, the IP address only identifies a specific server, the last server in the chain that carried your internet request to the final destination page. Since the world wide web is like, well, a web, your internet requests don’t typically go anywhere in a straight line. They travel from server to server based on which servers are up and available to process the request, sort of like how relay races work.

 

 

So even though I can check my web statistics to get the IP addresses of people who have read this post on the DMM site today, those IP addresses do not provide me with any personally-identifying information about the people who visited. I can know with some certainty what country the people came from, but that’s about it in terms of location.

The exception to this kind of ‘IP anonymity’ is highly-secured, private computer networks, like those used by the government, military and financial institutions, where everyone using the network knows their every keystroke is being recorded for security purposes.

 

But There Are Some Other Special Cases…

Note that the information that follows is accurate as of this writing, but technology is always subject to change so in the future, there may be more special cases than those listed below.

1. Both you and the person you’re Googling are members of a web site/service that offers users a “search alert” tool that notifies them when anyone views their profile, AND the person you’re Googling has the ‘search alert’ option enabled, AND after Googling you click on a link to the other person’s profile on the site that has the search alert tool.

 

 

The sites I’m talking about are online address book services / contact list managers, professional networking sites, and social networking sites, and not ALL such sites have this option. If you belong to one or more such sites, just search the help pages there for “search alert” to see if this is an available option. Twitter and Facebook do not have any search alert option for their users as of this writing, and both of those sites have always fought against letting users know who’s browsing their profiles so it doesn’t seem likely to happen in the future, either.

Remember, even if there are sites with search alert tools involved, the only way that other person would know you Googled them is if you clicked a link to a site with a search alert tool on it AND you are both members of that site. If you’re not a member of the site the most that other person could get from a search alert is the IP address, and I already explained how totally impersonal that is. Even if you are a member of the site with the search alert, if you just scanned the Google search results, or only clicked on links to sites other than the site(s) with search alert enabled, the other person would still have no way of knowing you Googled.

 

2. In your search results, you followed a link to site that secretly uses illegal spyware to “trace” site visitors, AND the person you Googled has access to the spyware statistics on the site (or knows someone who does), AND the person you Googled is actively watching those statistics.

 

 

This possibility is pretty remote for the vast majority of law abiding people. Since all three conditions I’ve listed above must be met, even if you know a few shady types who would use illegal spyware, you’re not likely to be found out. Traffic logs are just huge text files filled with alpha-numeric strings, error messages and time and date stamps; they’re not fun or easy to read, so unless the person you’re Googling already has reason to be watching those logs very closely during the time period when you clicked the link to the site with spyware, he or she is not going to be motivated to crack open the log files and take a gander.

 

3. You Googled someone on a computer or device owned by that person, and the person knows how to view the device’s browser history.

But it would be pretty foolish to do that, wouldn’t it?

 

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