Your personal information is bought, sold, and shared by the websites you use every day—and by countless data brokers you've never heard of. Not coincidentally, a recent GetApp survey found that 91% of U.S. consumers feel ads know too much personal information about them.
Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible to totally remove personal information from internet sites. However, there are many steps you can take to reduce your digital footprint and make it more difficult for others to profit off of your personal data, particularly those companies that don't offer any kind of convenience in exchange and simply harvest your information for targeted advertising.
First things first, search your name online. Depending on the prevalence of your name, you might need to include a middle initial or city where you've lived. As you scroll through the results, you'll probably notice your personal information on websites such as Mylife, Spokeo, and Whitepages.
Welcome to the world of invasive people search data brokers that exist simply to traffic in personal information. These sites commonly publish your name, current and former addresses, data of birth, family members, phone numbers, email address, and numerous other data points.
Many people-search websites offer an opt-out page while others require sending an email request. Keep track of which sites you've emailed and follow-up with a more direct email if necessary. Some websites, such as WhitePages will require you to sign up for an account to request deletion. Be sure to use a throwaway email address for any communications with these companies.
These websites often reveal more than enough for criminals to use in social engineering schemes. That's why you should make every effort to remove personal information from internet data brokers. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse offers a directory of these types of websites with links to opt-out pages. Vice has also created a concise list of data brokers and opt out instructions here.
Finally, take the time to read the privacy policies associated with your bank accounts. Financial institutions are a primary source of information for the data broker industry but they often allow opting out of certain types of data sharing. For example, here is the opt-out page for Bank of America.
It's easy to forget about old online accounts you haven't accessed in years or even decades. For example, The New York Times recently published an article profiling a mother who had uploaded pictures of her children to Flickr, a photo sharing website that has seen its popularity decline steeply since its heyday.
The woman had forgotten about the account and was surprised to learn that her photos had been uploaded into a massive facial recognition database without her permission. Frustratingly, it's not uncommon for data to be provided by a user for one reason, but used by a company for another.
Internet companies are continually consolidating, which means user data is commonly transferred from one company to another. For example, twenty years ago, Classmates.com was a social network and one of the most visited sites on the internet. Now it's been acquired by Intellius, a major data broker specializing in background checks and people search websites. Intellius' CEO stated that the Classmates purchase provided a "unique set of data about people, including their maiden name, school, picture."
However, deleting your account isn't always easy. In fact, many websites make the process difficult using dark patterns to manipulate you into keeping your account active or give you the false impression that it's been closed or deleted. If you need help, jog your memory of forgotten accounts with this helpful list of common websites and associated instructions on how to close your account.
Invoking privacy settings on social media accounts is crucial to reducing your online data trail. Social media sites regularly change these settings and bury them deep into menus making it difficult to maintain privacy on most platforms. That's because social media companies all make money on advertising.
For that reason, it's in their interest that your account remains as open as possible which fosters more interactions, feeds algorithms, and categorizes more of your preferences and behaviors into a marketing profile.
It's also not a bad idea to get in the habit of deleting old social media posts. Sure, a bad take from five years ago or photos from a drunken night out can come back to haunt you. But more importantly, social media posts often make moments permanent when they should really be ephemeral. Once they're gone, you won't miss your tweets from 2015 or your Facebook posts from 2011.
The National Cyber Security Alliance has a list of links to most major social media and device privacy settings that you can find here. The Electronic Frontier Foundation offers a social media privacy primer here.
Google is the greatest compiler of data on the internet. That's why you should take the time to remove personal information from Google by accessing the search giant's activity controls where you manage web and app activity, YouTube history, and ad personalization.
Find Google's activity controls here.
If you remove personal information from Google, yet it still shows up in cached results, you can go here to request that the cache be cleared and remove the information from the search engine. If you need to report abuse or otherwise remove personal information from Google for legal reasons, click this link.
Earlier this year, Mozilla's Firefox began blocking third-party cookies (i.e., cookies that track your activity across the internet) by default. Apple's Safari does the same. Other browsers, such as Brave, have been designed with privacy in mind from inception.
Regardless of what browser you use, numerous privacy settings can be applied and browser extensions can be added to enhance security. Most web browsers allow you to set cookies to automatically delete after each session while making exceptions for websites that you'd like to stay logged in to from session to session.
Furthermore, you can use privacy-focused search engines such as Duckduckgo to enhance your online privacy. You can also simply use incognito mode to avoid third-party cookies and use an ad-blocker to minimize ads. In fact, a recent GetApp survey found that more than half of U.S. consumers now use an ad-blocker.
Unfortunately, even the most secure browsers are still vulnerable to fingerprinting, which tracks you without cookies by analyzing your device's various settings. You can learn more about browser fingerprinting here and you can test your browser's overall security here.
Remember that, despite these tools and strategies, your employer and internet service provider (ISP) can always see everything you do online if they choose. This is why many of these types of guides recommend a VPN, but that's not always much better for privacy purposes as many of these services keep logs of user activity.
And even if a VPN claims it will not keep logs, you simply must trust that company to be telling the truth and hope that they will maintain high security standards, neither of which you can confirm. Even the TOR browser can't ensure total privacy. In the end, there's no such thing as anonymity on the internet.
There are many reasons to clean out or delete old email accounts such as Yahoo or AOL. Both services are now owned by Verizon. If you want to keep your Yahoo or AOL email account, go to Verizon's privacy controls page here to manage your preferences and opt out of email scanning.
In 2017, Google announced that Gmail would no longer be scanned for personalized advertising but many other free email services still do.
Marketing associations give consumers some input regarding targeted advertising by participating companies. However, the selections made through these association are generally device or browser specific and require cookies to maintain preferences, limiting their utility.
The Data & Marketing Association offers service called DMA choice to opt out of direct mail, email solicitations, and telephone marketing. Find it it here.
The Network Advertising Initiative opt-out page can be found here.
The Digital Advertising Alliance offers the AdChoices which can be found here
while its AppChoices program is over here.
Phone apps can leak data and monitor your activities whether you're using them or not. Take a few minutes to go through your phone and delete apps that you rarely use. For those apps that you keep, take a look at the permissions and consider whether they're appropriate.
For example, it makes sense for a food delivery app to have access to your location, but maybe not your microphone. Furthermore, if you only order food from the app occasionally, you can easily turn location tracking on and off when you use it.
Downloading any app generally opens you up to a host of privacy concerns. Unfortunately, Internet companies often make apps difficult to resist. For example, Facebook makes it difficult to send messages on a mobile device without downloading its invasive Messenger app. Without the Messenger app, you need to click request desktop site through your mobile browser's settings and then access messages through the Facebook website just like you'd do on your laptop.
Turn your phone's location data off when it's not needed. It only takes a moment to turn it on if you need to use location-based apps. Switch off bluetooth off when it's not in use. Bluetooth is increasingly being used by Google and other tech companies to locate devices even when location tracking is turned off. This is done by determining when they're near other bluetooth devices or beacons.
As our lives fill with smart speakers and televisions, we might overlook some of our emerging privacy vulnerabilities. For example, smart TVs typically use automated content recognition (ACR) to track what you watch and target you with advertisements. If this concerns you, review your TV's settings to restrict ACR.
Over the past year, the public has gained insight into how little privacy is actually afforded by smart speakers. A recent investigation by Security Research Labs exposed how easily they can be hacked and used for eavesdropping. Furthermore, all major manufacturers have recently admitted that contractors review recordings.
To access Amazon's Alexa privacy settings, go here. For Google Home, use your smartphone app to open the Account tab and select My Activity. From there you can find options to delete all recordings and set future recordings to erase automatically. Apple does not offer an option to delete Siri's recordings. Finally, you can mute your smart speaker when it's not in use.
For more smart device privacy strategies, read our report.
If you are fortunate enough to live in a country or U.S. state that has passed a comprehensive data privacy law, you might have more options than the rest of us. Privacy regulations such as the GDPR and CCPA allow consumers to opt out of the sale of their personal information and delete it upon request. In the U.S., state privacy laws exist in several states but their protections vary.
Several years ago, I wiped out my personal Facebook page, deleting every single post. A friend soon commented that my blank page looked lonely, to which I replied, “It's not lonely, it's clean." Minimizing a personal data trail might be difficult for some, but it is a liberating process much like finally cleaning out an attic or taking a big pile of old clothes down the thrift store.
Recognize that your personal data trail is a complex web of connections that are used to discern your likes, dislikes, and behavioral patterns. The best strategy is to use articles like this one to break up those connections to make using the internet a less invasive experience and to prevent the potential misuse of your personal information by others.
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This document, while intended to inform our clients how to remove personal information from the internet, is in no way intended to provide legal advice or to endorse a specific course of action.
The GetApp survey referenced in this article was conducted in July, 2019, among 392 U.S. consumers who reported experience with online shopping.