You can’t completely scrub yourself off the internet. A little bit of you will always linger, whether it’s in data broker databases, on old social media you forgot or behind someone else’s vacation photos on Flickr.
That’s no reason to give up! You can definitely take steps to protect your privacy by cleaning things like your Google results. For the best results, you’ll need time, money, and patience, and you’ll need to live in a country or state with strict privacy laws.
Of this week Ask the help desk question is all about the data brokers: “How do I get my information removed from data aggregators?” asks Jennifer Swindell, from Sagle, Idaho. But first, let’s take a step back and start with something more public.
Google is what most people think of when they are concerned about their data online. The search engine is the largest index of websites, but is often just the messenger. Know that anything you manage to remove from a search result is likely still on the site it’s hosted on unless you have them removed as well. You want to ask those sites to remove it as well.
Google yourself first. Keep a list of where your information turns up and specifically look for something personal, such as your address or phone number, identification information (driver’s license number), or any other information you find inappropriate. Combine your name with your address or phone number in the search field.
Google recently added a form where you can request that certain results or information be removed, including explicit photos if they are fake, posted without your permission or just randomly appear in front of your name and not display you. There is an option to remove information that could be used to dox you, such as ID numbers, financial information, medical records, your physical address, and other contact information.
Unsubscribe, unsubscribe some more
Now that the cosmetic requests are done, it’s time for data brokers. There are hundreds of data brokers in the United States and you can find listings from organizations such as: Privacy Rights Clearinghouse† For starters, let’s practice on big names like Acxiom† CoreLogic† Epsilon Data Management† Equifaxand Experian† You can choose not to let these sites share your information and in some cases you can ask them to delete it. Of course, every site has several hoops to jump through, such as sending an email, filling out a form, emailing or faxing a letter, or confirming your identity.
As with Google results, removing your information from data brokers doesn’t mean it’s still not there, and asking them not to share it doesn’t mean other sites don’t already own it . They got it from countless sources, including apps you voluntarily installed on your phone, your browser or websites you’ve visited, your shopping history, and public records. The information can be used to target or populate ads on public people search sites.
Limit what you put online
The best move is to start by limiting the information about you online. Use our Privacy Reset Guide to enable strong privacy settings for the main apps or devices you use regularly, including your smartphone, banking, and social media sites. When posting on social media, be careful about what kind of information you share and make sure your settings are set to private if possible.
Use a privacy-oriented browser and search engine and search for a global privacy control option or a setting to prevent cross-site tracking. Avoid signing up for anything that could lead to your personal information being re-shared, such as surveys. Remove all applications that you do not use (or trust) from your computer, smartphone and tablet.
In 2020, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) went into effect, giving state residents more options to protect and delete their data. As part of the law, companies are required to delete your personal information upon request, although you must confirm your identity. Some companies have gone ahead and made this option available to people living all over the United States, while others are only doing it for California residents. (You can also request a copy of your information under this law or that a company not sell your personal information.)
To help you get started with your first CCPA requests, Tatum Hunter from the help desk has created a guide.
Using a third-party service
If you didn’t know before starting this article, now you know how much work it takes to really stay on top of having your personal data deleted. There are paid services that can do a lot of the removal for you, and are a good option if you’re concerned about your personal security (even they admit some data is out of their control).
DeleteMe starts at $69 per year and offers to regularly scan data brokers and websites for your personal data and ask to delete it. OneRep is a similar tool that starts at $8.33 per month. If you’re concerned about identity theft, sign up for Norton’s LifeLock. the app Jumbo tries to maximize your privacy settings for all apps and has free and paid versions. AccountKiller is a tool for deleting your old online accounts.
There are also some centralized opt-out sites you can visit, such as the FTCs don’t call me register and OptOutPrescreen.com†
Doug MacMillan contributed to this report.