We are more connected to the internet than ever before.
This can make it difficult to keep track of all the apps, services, and email lists to which we’ve willingly given our personal information. That’s not even taking into account considering all the online data collectors that gather info about us automatically.
Although it’s impossible to completely erase your online data footprint, there are steps you can take to reduce it.
Deactivate What You Don’t Use
The first course of action against the proliferation of your personal data is deactivating old or rarely used accounts. Take shopping sites, for example. Depending on the retailer, sites will sometimes force users to create accounts before checking out.
Others incentivize coughing up your email address with coupon codes for new shoppers. In both cases, simply unsubscribing from future emails does nothing about the personal info still sitting on their servers.
Rather, the surest way of deleting your data is to log in and deactivate the account.
Usually, the appropriate link can be found under either ‘Privacy’ or ‘Security’ settings. If you’re having trouble finding it, a quick Google search should turn up specific directions for the site in question. Even so, some sites still unfortunately don’t allow for such straightforward account deletion.
Change Provided Information
For these accounts, the best you may be able to do is change the personal info to some random gibberish.
Data brokers, like Whitepages and PeopleFinder, are the kinds of websites that collect data about you for the purpose of selling it. Here’s where deleting your personal data starts to get a little hairy.
Sites like these don’t make it easy to opt out (despite you never actually opting in). Though their procedures vary, typically, data brokers require physical, signed, and faxed paperwork. They also have no particular obligation and thus give no guarantee to delete your info.
Reaching out to the webmaster directly can, in some cases, help get rid of your old posts and comments on sites. You may be able to grab their info from the ‘Contact Us’ or similar page and shoot them an email right away. If you have little luck there, you can find the relevant contact for any website by looking up its registered whois info.
Just remember to ask nicely and provide clear reasons for your request. When dealing with a webmaster, remember you’re in his or her domain, literally. It’s entirely up to them whether they fulfill your request or ignore it.
Submit A Legal Request
Now, if you have sensitive private info posted publicly on a site, you may be able to get it taken down by submitting a legal request to Google.
This is a critical step for published info like bank account or Social Security numbers. The process may take a while to complete as well as some serious following-up. Still, the alternative is a glaring vulnerability to identity theft.
Get Some Outside Help
There are, of course, web-based solutions that make it much easier to get rid of your less sensitive personal info. Services like DeleteMe continuously monitor those sites collecting your data and do all the grunt work deleting it for you. Currently, it provides this service for a fee of $129 for one year.
For unfulfilled take-down requests, unresponsive webmasters, and other hard-to-efface circumstances, other tools are better suited. BrandYourself, for example, offers a simple DIY tool to help increase the visibility of the stuff you do want out there.
Meanwhile, the stuff you don’t want showing up is pushed further and further away from the most visible results of search queries.
Make It A Habit
Regardless of your reasons for doing so, curtailing the visibility of your personal information should, nowadays, become habit. Every year your smartphone, connected car, personal computer, and more all collect tons of data about you. Every day you generate loads of data just by making the rounds on sites like Facebook, Youtube, and pretty much any other high-traffic website.
All this data is not for nothing. While its collection alone is not malicious, there can sometimes be unpleasant consequences for the targets. Sometimes people forget about the data they knowingly volunteered to certain sites and services. The consequences of this can be just as bad, if not worse, as in cases of hackers breaching site databases to steal personal info.
If this isn’t reason enough to regularly review and manage your own personal data footprint, consider that, regardless of whether you do, someone else is surely doing it for you.