With every day that passes, we become more connected to the internet, but our level of understanding of how the digital world works isn’t going up proportionately. Not only is it an exhausting challenge to keep track of all the new apps, services and email lists that we so optimistically allow to access our data, but it’s also impossible to find out about all of the automated data scrapers that collect our information without our consent.
And while we mostly get by well enough, every once in a while something will happen to remind us of how incredibly dangerous it is to have our personal details so readily accessible: usually a massive security breach, data leak, and/or blackmail attempt. We’re so quick to embrace new technologies that we don’t stop to think about the dangers of losing our anonymity.
But what can you do if you’re worried about the data stored about you online? Money woes are bad enough without adding to them. Well, while you’ll never be able to completely erase your digital footprint, you can take steps to significantly reduce it and slow down its rate of growth. Let’s go through these steps.
Delete or Deactivate Unused Accounts
The first course of action against the proliferation of your personal data is deactivating your old or rarely-used user accounts. Shopping sites will sometimes require users to create accounts before they can complete their orders, and many sites convince people to create accounts by offering them single-use incentives such as coupon codes.
This leads to one-time buyers having lingering inactive accounts lingering that they likely wouldn’t even remember if not for persistent email marketing. And even if they choose to unsubscribe from the mailing lists, their accounts (and the associated personal details) remain untouched on the system.
What you need to do is set aside some time to go through all your unused accounts and delete (or at least deactivate) them. In most cases, you’ll be able to find an appropriate link in a ‘Privacy’ or ‘Security’ section, but it varies hugely — if you can’t figure out where to go, you can try a Google search, or use the site’s internal search (or even check this site).
That said, some websites simply won’t allow you to fully delete or deactivate a user account. In some cases, it’s the result of thoughtless design — in others, it’s a reflection of a general indifference about privacy. If you have an account on such a site, you should try changing your details to gibberish, and then reach out to the site manually with an account deletion request.
Ask Data Brokers to Delete Your Data
Exemplified by sites like Whitepages or PeopleFinder, data brokers don’t store your data to support broader services — they store your data specifically to sell it, which is why it should come as no surprise that it won’t be easy to get rid of it. Because they never require anyone to opt in before storing their data, there’s no neat way to opt out and thus erase your data.
If you want to remove your data from a data broker, you’ll need to investigate and follow their procedures. This may be as simple as asking them, or as complicated as producing (and perhaps even faxing) signed paperwork. But even if you follow the requirements to the letter, you still might not have any luck, as there’s every chance they’ll simply choose to ignore you.
You can find some deletion procedures in this article, but if you’re not sure about the path to take, it’s definitely worth grabbing whatever contact info the data broker in question provides and sending them a cordial email with clear reasons for your request. If you’re friendly enough, they might actually want to help you out.
Submit Google Listing Removal Requests
If you have personal data out there that you can’t find a way to remove, the next-best thing is to try to have it delisted by Google. Since people can’t usually find specific pages without using search engines, and Google maintains a stranglehold over the search world, a page that remains live but stops being listed in Google will usually lose the vast majority of its visits.
Whether it’s worth trying to do this will depend on the significance of the data you’re trying to protect, because Google (like the data brokers) isn’t under much obligation to do anything. If you have incredibly sensitive data out there, such as bank account information or medical records, it’s absolutely worth pursuing as quickly as possible — it may take some time, and require some extensive chasing, but you be able to get the listing erased in the end.
To get started, visit the EU Privacy Removal page and fill in all the fields. Because the process will take some time, be sure to get all the details correct right away so you won’t have to mess around trying to fix them later.
Use Targeted Services or Tools
If you find that too much of your personal information is accessible online but lack the time or inclination to follow the aforementioned steps, you still have one final recourse: data deletion services. When the online privacy industry became big enough, companies began to trade specifically in charging people to keep their data protected.
DeleteMe, for instance, will charge someone $129 per year (it’s a US-exclusive service) to scour the web and get rid of most of their digital footprint — whatever’s available through user accounts, posts, and data brokers. If you’re a US citizen, it may be worth the cost to you, depending on how much information is out there, how you spend your time online, and how likely people are to take interest in your data.
You can also make an effort to ‘correct’ how you appear in search results by influencing rankings and getting out ahead of pages you don’t like. Tools like BrandYourself are designed to assist with this, informing you about risks in your online representation and giving you tactics for building a strong reputation.
Make a Habit of Being Cautious
Whether you’ve already suffered from the online availability of your personal information, or you’re simply concerned about what might happen, you should start limiting the visibility of the data you share. After all, the threat is only going to get worse. Every time you use a smartphone, connect a car to the internet, or browse a site like Facebook or YouTube, your activity is monitored and your data is collected — and you can’t know what exactly why.
While there are plenty of positive reasons for collecting data (enabling more sophisticated personalisation to improve UX, for instance), it’s very difficult to feel secure, particularly since data that was collected for a good reason can still be used maliciously. Do you really feel comfortable sharing your information with every app that requests it? It only takes one of them to act in bad faith (or simply have lax security) to completely expose your data.
Whenever you’re asked by an app or website to provide your details, confirm why the data is needed, and don’t give it if you don’t find the reason compelling. If an ecommerce site demands that you create an account to place a one-time order, contact them directly to arrange it the order, or simply go elsewhere. It’s incumbent on the businesses we buy from and work with to be responsible with our data, and if they can’t manage it, they don’t deserve our custom.
OK, let’s wrap things up by reviewing the options we’ve looked at for removing your personal information from the internet:
- Get rid of unused user accounts.
- Request that data brokers remove your data.
- Ask Google to stop listing pages containing your details.
- Subscribe to a data-removal service.
- Use a brand management tool.
Make use of these options, and dedicate yourself to being extremely cautious with your private information, and you can significantly reduce the likelihood that your sensitive personal data will ever be used against you. Good luck!