Photo: Roger Pincombe
I woke up at 2:30 a.m. earlier this week to the sound of my ringing phone.Sleepily answering it, I heard a computerized voice call me out by name: “You, Dylan, are a frightfully decadent nose picker and a miserable orgasm-faking orgy of indecency.”
I called the number back the next day to figure out what was going on.
It turns out that I had been pranked by Roger Pincombe, a reader who saw a post I had written about a service you can use to remove some of your personal information from the Internet. I learned the hard way that a lot of mine is still out there.
We actually had a nice chat after that. It turns out that Pincombe is a developer who makes his living by travelling around the country to compete in hackathons, putting together applications in a brief time frame where a panel of judges awards cash prizes.
At a Georgia hackathon called Hacklanta, Pincombe built NotSoPrivate.net, a service that “lets users enter simple, seemingly harmless information like their email address, Twitter handle, or phone number. It then extrapolates that information, pulling from a variety of different sources…to present to the user a complete picture of their privacy situation…or lack thereof.” You can read Pincombe’s own explanation of the service here.
NotSoPrivate won first place. And if you take it for a test drive, you’ll see why — it works well. Entering nothing more than my Twitter username, the service correctly returned my phone number, personal email address, and other details I’d like to think were less accessible.
Pincombe emphasised that he’s not some privacy expert, nor is he usually one for pulling pranks (the robot-voice phone call was from Insultron, another one of his projects). NotSoPrivate simply exists for people to reevaluate the scope of their exposed personal information, which is exactly what I did after talking to him.
My thanks to Roger for the wake-up call.
Roger has the following to add:
I would like emphasise that a hackathon is a programming competition in which participants “hack something together” and it does not involve the illegal type of hacking that most people associate with the word. I am not a hacker in that sense, nor did I steal his phone number, I simply found it using a tool I had built for a previous competition (Hacklanta). Speaking of which, NotSoPrivate.net was programmed in 24 hours and as such isn’t very robust. To anyone that isn’t getting results with it, that’s probably due to it not being able to handle the load. It searches a lot of sources simultaneously many times over to build out the information, so it can break if multiple people use it at once. Also, sometimes it just doesn’t find anything, especially if you don’t use many social networking sites. It is most effective when you use Twitter as a starting point, although it can occasionally get somewhere with the other starting points.
For what it’s worth, I am much more proud of Insultron, the computerized voice that called Dylan. Just text any phone number to (910) 225-5771, optionally including a name. The insults are randomly generated, different every time, and read in a classy British accent. You can also use it like a Rejection Hotline, giving it to people who ask for your phone number. There’s more info and samples at http://twitter.com/insultron.
The article does make a good point though: you probably have more info online than you realise. NotSoPrivate only covers a small subset of the sources and techniques people can use to find that supposedly private info. It’s good to Google your name and your various handles occasionally to see what’s out there.