Online, your private life is searchable
When Maya Rupert wrote an article frowning at several Southern states for officially celebrating Confederate History Month, Internet critics lined up to fire back.

But this time, they arrived with more than harsh words.

The 28-year-old Los Angeles attorney's detractors dug up a photo of her and posted it, along with details of political contributions she'd made, in an online discussion of the article she wrote for the L.A. Watts Times. They called their finds evidence of her bias on the emotionally charged subject.

"It really surprised me when I found out that people could see how much I donated to Obama," Rupert said, referring to the $400 she gave to the candidate last year, the record of which is available through several online watchdog sites.

After that, Rupert said, "they pulled a picture off my firm's website and said, 'Of course she's black.' "

Until recently, personal information has been scattered across cyberspace, to be found or not depending on the luck and sophistication of the searcher. But a new crop of "snooper" sites is making it easier than ever for anyone with Internet access to assemble the information into a digital portrait.

"It's amazing what you can Google," one of the people who criticized Rupert wrote in an online forum.

Rupert has since learned that the photo and campaign contributions were just a small part of her online "footprint" -- an expansive dossier that she did not realize was available to anyone searching her name.

On Snitch.name, users can enter a name -- their own or someone else's -- and watch as the site culls information from dozens of search engines, social networks and directories.

Rupert entered her name into Snitch last week, and within a minute she was presented with photos of herself, details of her California Bar membership and the names and addresses of her sister and parents.

"I'm a fan of open records and a fan of a lot of information being public," she said. "But there's public," and then there's the unfettered Web where "at the touch of a button, I can find out private information about you and use that for other purposes."

"It's really creepy," she said.

Looking in the digital mirror

Online information about consumers comes from several sources. Public records such as campaign contributions, property sales and court cases are increasingly posted on the Internet. At the same time, marketers are collecting information about consumers' Web browsing and buying habits. And then there are the thousands of online communities such as Facebook and Twitter, where users supply the personal information themselves.

In general, people have felt that their information is better protected within the walls of social networks, where they can control what is posted and approve who can view it. But privacy experts warn against being lulled into a false sense of security.

"The rule of thumb for Internet privacy is that you don't let it get out there in the first place," said Pam Dixon, founder of the World Privacy Forum. The moment information is openly accessible online, it can be -- and often is -- copied from one site to another, making it extremely onerous to stamp out even if it's deleted from the original site.

"It's not like chasing Alice in Wonderland down a rabbit hole," Dixon said. "It's like chasing a hundred Alices down a hundred rabbit holes."

In the course of exploring her own digital footprint, Rupert saw photos and information from a social networking profile she'd started in 2003 on Friendster.com, thinking that only her friends would be able to see it. Little did she know that, years later, much of the material would end up exposed to the open Web. Details from her MySpace profile had also been copied to third-party sites she'd never heard of, where they remained accessible no matter whether she removed the material from MySpace.

Even if you don't post any information about yourself online, however, maintaining a low profile can be a challenge.