- With personal data a big issue on the internet, consumers have a legitimate interest in controlling the information flow and reducing the threat of identity theft.
- Google recently rolled out a new “Results about you” tool that allows consumers to request the removal of personal data from search results.
- You can pay for an internet privacy service, such as DeleteMe, Kanary and OneRep, while people-search websites such as Spokeo, MyLife.com and Radaris have procedures to allow consumers to request removal from their database.
With so much personal data floating publicly on the internet, consumers have a legitimate interest in controlling the information flow. Some are taking matters into their own hands, opting out of certain data-collection websites or using paid removal services to do the scrubbing on their behalf.
Whether to do this, and which option you chose, depends largely on the extent of your privacy concerns, how much time and energy, if any, you are willing to expend and how much you are willing to pay for privacy protection purposes.
“How much does it bother you that your phone number is out there and that people know you are married?”
said Stephen B. Wicker, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University.
Here’s what you need to know about removing or limiting your personal data from the internet:
Identity theft and your online trail
At issue is data collected by scores of online companies called data brokers, which aggregate consumers’ personal information, often selling it to other organizations. This data can include a person’s name, mailing address, birthday, relatives’ names, social media, property value, occupation and other nuggets that can be leveraged for various scams.
“For identity theft purposes, it’s like tiles in a mosaic. The more tiles you have the more the impersonation can be accurate,” said Adam K. Levin, a consumer affairs advocate and former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs who co-hosts a cybersecurity podcast.
Not everyone is as concerned about their personal data being available to the public, but there are legitimate reasons why some people may have heightened sensitivity. This includes those who have experienced or are concerned about harassment or stalking, and people who work in law enforcement or in high-profile corporate jobs, said Damon McCoy, associate professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering.
Self-help tools to remove personal information
For those who are so inclined, there are ways to limit the amount of personal information available on the internet. Many people-search websites such as Spokeo, MyLife.com and Radaris, for example, have procedures to allow consumers to request removal from their database.
Additionally, Google recently rolled out a new “Results about you” tool that allows consumers to request the removal of search results that contain their personal phone number, home address or email address. While removing these results doesn’t scrub a person’s contact information from the web, it’s a step Alphabet has taken to mitigate the misuse of personal information.
You can also ask Google to remove certain links to other information found in a Google Search. If possible, start by contacting the website owner and asking that the content be removed. If that fails, Google says it may remove personal information “that creates significant risks of identity theft, financial fraud, or other specific harms.” This could include non-consensual explicit or intimate personal images, involuntary fake pornography and images of minors.
Downsides to the DIY data management approach
The downside to the DIY-approach is that it requires a real-time commitment and ongoing maintenance to ensure data doesn’t reappear. “You can do it yourself, it’s just a very time-consuming exercise because you have to go to individual websites and follow the rules about how to remove yourself from the websites,” said Rahul Telang, professor of information systems at Carnegie Mellon University.
What’s more, you may have to repeat the process because sometimes the information can reappear, meaning it’s not a one-and-done endeavor. It’s a lot like “unsubscribing” to an email list, wrote Mike Kiser, director of strategy and standards at the identity security company SailPoint, in emailed comments.
“You can click ‘unsubscribe,’ but it is very difficult to verify that the data has been deleted from their end — and that they haven’t already resold the data to some other entity, which makes deletion of private information much more challenging,” Kiser noted.
Paying for a subscription to scrub websites
For some people, the time and energy they’d need to spend to remove personal information from the various sites is simply too extensive, so they prefer to pay for a service that can do it for them and provide regular updates on the progress. There are a handful of these services, including Abine Inc.’s DeleteMe, Kanary and OneRep.
Costs can range, often $7 to $25 a month, depending on the provider and whether it’s an individual or a family plan, Kiser said. Annual pricing is often available as well.
For instance, one of the options DeleteMe offers is $129 per year for one person. Kanary offers a free version of its service and a paid version that costs $105 annually for one person and $150 for a family plan, which covers an individual and two loved ones. OneRep offers a plan for $99.96 per year for one user and $180 per year for six people.
It can be hard to gauge the effectiveness of these services, partly because there’s so much personal information in the public domain. Kanary, in the frequently asked questions section of its website, claims a removal success rate of more than 70% for every user. For its part, OneRep claims to have deleted 5 million records in 2021. DeleteMe’s website says that 2,389 pieces of personal information, on average, are found over a two-year subscription.
Before signing up for a paid service, be sure to compare providers’ offerings closely, including price, what’s included and how often the service reports its progress to customers. You could also see if a free trial is available. Additionally, if you’re using a credit monitoring service, it could also be worth asking whether a data removal feature is included, Levin said.
You might also see if your company pays for the service, since some employers offer this as a benefit to high-level employees, McCoy said.
U.S. privacy laws still weaker than in Europe
Practically speaking, it’s impossible to remove every morsel of online information tied to your name. Certain types of information, such as public records, are publicly available and may be searchable online, for instance. What’s more, some sites — especially those hosted outside the U.S. — don’t offer a procedure for opting out. Additionally, the data you can remove is much more limited in the U.S. than in Europe where the privacy laws are stronger, Wicker said.
“The reality is once you are out there, you’re out there. You can delete information, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still out there,”
Levin said. That’s why he recommends consumers do ongoing privacy audits by Googling themselves and/or working with a paid provider that monitors these things on their behalf.
“You have to continue to be alert,”
Types of sensitive information
Think about how often you post on social media. Now think about all of those online accounts that you’ve set up and never even used!
There’s all sorts of sensitive information about you floating around the web. This includes but is not limited to:
- Full name, telephone number, education history, and physical address
- Bank account number and login details
- Health records
- Social Security Number
- Health insurance data
- Identification details
Fraudsters create robust data profiles by gathering information from public sources (like your social media profiles), from the largest data brokers and even from recent data breaches!
They can then use that information to wreak havoc. They could enter into contracts with a person’s name, use your social security number to file a fake tax return, obtain property illegally, or even steal money from your bank account. The worst of the worst may even stalk you at your home and harass you at work. It can get nasty! This is why you want to delete yourself from the internet: it reduces your data footprint and gives hackers fewer entry points into your life.
How to delete yourself from the internet in 10 steps
It’s really difficult to fully delete yourself from the internet. In fact, it may be next to impossible, since most of us enjoy many benefits from life online.
The best you can do is take a methodical approach to delete yourself from the internet and minimize your data footprint. Be patient and prioritize the steps that have the highest impact for your own personal data privacy goals.
1. Start with Google
At the top of the information funnel sits the biggest gorilla of them all: Google. The immensely popular search engine is the access point to most people’s personal information.
Although it compiles this information to customize your content, it could potentially land in the hands of fraudsters. And yes, it is possible to remove your name from Google searches.
Do this: Visit Google’s activity controls to manage ad personalization, YouTube history, and app and web activity. Since Google collects data continuously, we recommend turning on “Auto Delete” to delete your data at a regular interval.
2. Revisit your browser’s privacy controls
Hackers can also insert themselves between a website and your computer, inserting a malicious cookie that can access your personal information and put you at risk for further trouble.
Brave and DuckDuckGo are browsers developed with privacy in mind. These browsers block third-party cookies that track internet activity. Regardless of which browser one uses, it is possible to apply privacy settings and add browser extensions for enhanced security.
Do this: Go into each browser’s settings and turn off cookies. We recommend using DuckDuckGo, which also has a setting to prevent browser fingerprinting, which is when your unique browser is tracked across the internet.
3. Clean up your online accounts
This one may be hard. If you really want to delete yourself from the internet, you’re going to have to delete your social media accounts. Including some you may have forgotten about, like that embarrassing MySpace page from years ago.
Or, if you just want to prevent strangers from seeing your content, you can update your settings to restrict public access. You may also then want to consider deleting old posts that don’t fit with your current life.
You’ll also want to delete any online accounts that you’re not using, such as online shops that still have your data even though you only bought something once. That stale data puts you at risk of identity theft! Deleting these accounts is not always easy. Many shady websites make the process difficult or pretend to deactivate or delete your account. Although it may be difficult, the data security you gain from this process makes it well worth it!
Do this: Shameless plug. Privacy Bee can help you manage your data deletion requests. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
4. Opt out of data brokers
Data brokers are tasked with collecting information from people and compiling said information online. Examples of these companies include PeopleFinder and Spokeo. They collect information from people’s online activities and sell it to interested parties mostly for advertisement purposes. Bad actors, however, may acquire people’s information and use it for a variety illegal purposes.
It’s going to take some legwork but you can go and opt out of each data broker and people search site. Start by doing a search for your name on different search engines and then following the lead until you find the right opt-out flow. It takes time but it may be the most impactful step to deleting yourself from the internet!
Do this: Check out our opt-out guide to the largest data brokers. Or you could automate your privacy management!
5. Delete your personal information from blogs
When was the last time you checked that old Tumblr page? We often share intimate details (especially in our younger years) that end up living forever.
Take some time to review old content to see if it’s worth making a removal request. You might want to preserve some things, but you’ll find that other things are less important to save — especially when trying to reduce your digital footprint.
Do this: Search your name on Google and other search engines…and click through beyond the first page. You may find some ancient content that needs deleting! If so, ask Google to get rid of outdated content. It may work in some instances.
7. Get rid of unused apps
When installing new apps, most people don’t care to read the Terms and Conditions. They just click the ‘I Agree’ button without much thought. The truth is, many mobile apps collect a lot of personal information that could later be hacked!
Every so often, you should delete unused apps from your phone. And whenever you download a new app, carefully read the Terms so you know exactly what you’re agreeing to.
Especially risky are shady loan apps that prompt you for personal information and, rather than give you a loan, they use this information to access your bank or other private records.
Do this: Perform an app clean up whenever you update your smartphone software. This gives you a frequent reminder to delete any apps that are lingering on your phone – and potentially tracking your activity!
8. Clean up your browser (and file sharing sites)
You should only keep the bare minimum of sensitive information on your computer. This will minimize the damage if your device ends up in the wrong hands.
Remember that your browser contains tons of data on your search history, as well as cached files, and passwords. Imagine what a hacker could do with this information! Don’t wait until it’s too late. Bulk up your online security by regularly clearing your browser history.
You may also want to consider connections to file sharing sites, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, as well as any cloud photo apps. If your computer (or phone) is stolen, there could be a lot of data that ends up being leaked…and not just your personal photos: tax returns, birth certificates and other documents are rich with useful info for hackers!
Do this: Download these privacy apps for iOS and privacy apps for Android to protect your smartphone from prying eyes.
Privacy protection is a process
Identity theft is one of those things that you don’t think about until it happens to you. Ensure that it never happens to you and protect yourself by deleting unnecessary data from the internet. A methodical approach works well – just start working down the list, step by step!
Once you’ve minimized your data footprint, periodically check to see if you were part of a data breach. If you see signs of identity theft, follow these steps to recover from identity theft. It’s a continuous process that may seem tedious but as they say, “safety first”!