April 21, 2017

We’ve spent the past few weeks talking about tools for keeping reporters and their sources safe. This week, Poynter’s Ren LaForme is focusing on a tool that will help you find which information about you is on the internet, what you may want to clean up and what you can discover about sources.

So, what are we talking about this week?

Today I want to talk about one specific tool, but I want to use it to drive home a bigger point. The tool we’re going to talk about is people dot com. Have you heard of this?

No…well..other than the magazine with all the gossip about the Kardashians?

I wish. That would be a very fun tool. We’re talking about p-i-p-l.com. Something I don’t think most people think about is that they’re leaving little bits of information about themselves on a lot of sites they go on. And what Pipl does is it combines all these little bits of information about you, and it paints a pretty complete picture of who you are.

And if we’re talking about digital security for journalists, there is maybe some stuff out there that you want to lock down. Especially if you’re working on something that upsets a lot of people or would give them reasons to try to figure out where you live or get more information about you.

There are a lot of sites out there like this. I think Pipl is the easiest to use and the most comprehensive one. You can obviously pay for all kinds of background reports, but Pipl really does a good job of taking the free stuff out there and putting it all together.

So how can we use this?

In two ways. One, how to look at what’s out there about you so can protect yourself. But also how to use Pipl for our benevolent journalistic purposes.

Pipl.com is really just a search bar. You go onto the site and see it right away, it’s sort of like Google. There are two fields. One, you can type in someone’s name, email address, a username if you know it, or even a phone number, and the second one is location, and location is optional.

If you type in my name, for instance, (I have a pretty unique name, I’m the only Ren LaForme in the world,) it pulls up all kinds of stuff about me. It pulls straight from my LinkedIn, so you can see my job, where I went to school, all of that immediately, and then below that, it tells you how old I am, it gives you some of my usernames, my old addresses, people I might be associated with, and then links to all of my social media accounts.


It’s terrifying, really.

I’m looking at this now and there are a ton of Kristen Hares. I never knew.

Yeah. So if you’re using to see what’s out there about you, you can then go cull this information from the internet. I see that it has all this information about my career and where I went to high school and the years even. So if I want that deleted, I can just go into LinkedIn and delete it.

The way I would start using this to clean up things is to see what shows up. One of the things I see on mine is an old username I used to use when I started my first blog like 12 or 13 years ago. It’s so cringe-y. It’s full of awful, cringe-y stuff. If someone clicked on that username, they’re gonna see it.

So I see right now that I definitely need to go on and delete that, or at least make it inaccessible.

Wait, was it a Brony blog?

No. It was a blog about how much I loved my high school girlfriend. And there’s all sorts of high-minded rants about politics and how I’m so interested in the idea of cognition. It’s just so cringe-y.

I think when you’re using it this way, you really need to think about what’s out there about you and how someone might use it against you.

Why do you think this is important for journalists?

Here’s the thing about the internet: It’s not very old, really. A lot of us were messing around on the internet when it first started, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were putting things out there that we didn’t necessarily know would be in the public eye.

We know better now. But the remnants of everything we’ve done before remain.

Also, if I write something that someone doesn’t like, I would probably not like my address to be so easily available.

How else should journalists be using this?

OK, let’s talk about what kind of fun we can have with this. A lot of time, we don’t have a lot of information about sources. The great thing with sites like Pipl is, if you know one or two, maybe even three unique identifiers about someone, you can find them pretty easily.

If you’re using this as a way to get information about sources, it sounds like you should take it with a grain of salt and understand that it’s not the same as real reporting, it’s really just helping you collect some string.

Right, this is not even a real background check. It’s really just guessing at a person’s identity using some of those markers from websites. It’s not entirely accurate, but it’s pretty darn good.

Is there anything else we should know about this?

It’s free to use. It’s one of those sites that’s full of sponsored links, just don’t click on those.

So we’re back next week with our final tool for staying safe on the internet, right?

We will be back next week with that, yes!

Awesome. OK, do not search for me on Pipl in the meantime.

Me, either.

This article is part of an ongoing series on digital tools for journalists.

Learn more about journalism tools with Try This! — Tools for Journalism. Try This! is powered by Google News Lab. It is also supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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