Depending on when you were born, you may have spent a significant amount of time online or may have never known an offline environment. Whatever the case, the internet and the companies that dominate its advertising know a lot about your life.
Numerous companies, including Amazon, Facebook, and Google, have vast amounts of information about you, including your preferences, health data, and social connections. However, they are not the only ones. Massive amounts of information about you are gathered and sold by countless mysterious data brokers that you’ve never heard of. Then, other businesses that you’ve probably never heard of will use this information to persuade you to buy more products. In addition, your old social media posts and forum comments from years ago are still available.
Although it will be extremely difficult at this point, there are some steps you can take to get rid of a lot of your online presence. It’s easier to break the process of deleting accounts and removing personal information into a few manageable steps and work on them gradually.
Refuse to use Data Brokers.
Data collection and sales represent a significant industry. The US state of Vermont passed a law in 2019 requiring all businesses purchasing and selling the personal data of third parties to register. More than 120 businesses logged their information in response. They included businesses creating tools for people searches, businesses managing location data, and businesses specializing in your health data. These businesses gather information on everything from your name, address, and date of birth to your social security number, shopping preferences, and where and how long you attended school.
Acxiom, Equifax (yes, that one), Experian, Oracle, and Epsilon are some of the largest data brokers. Depending on where you are in the world, some data brokers do allow people to choose not to have their personal information processed, but the procedure is not simple. You’ll frequently need to email them, complete online forms, and provide additional identification data.
A database of data brokers has been compiled by the US-based nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse; it includes each company’s email address, a link to its privacy statement, and details on whether it allows you to opt out. You can get a sense of how big the data brokerage industry is by looking at the 231 US companies that are included on the list.
If the GDPR in Europe or the Consumer Privacy Act in California apply to you, you can also send requests to have your data deleted. For 10 of the largest data brokers, privacy-focused organization YourDigitalRights has created opt-out forms to hasten the deletion of your information. It’s probably best to begin rejecting the biggest businesses first.
Updated Google Search Results
There are some limited actions you can take to ensure that the information displayed is up-to-date and to remove harmful details, such as doxing attempts, but you cannot alter the way Google displays its search results. You can use Google’s tool to delete out-of-date content if a web page’s owner updates it, but Google’s search results don’t reflect the change. For pages that have vanished or have significantly changed from the versions it has indexed previously, Google will update its search results.
Google will also take removal requests for harmful content into account. You can ask for content to be removed from websites if there are non-consensual explicit images, fake pornography, financial, medical, or national ID data, doxing, or images of children. You will need to fill out a form and present supporting documentation in order to do this.
Also included in GDPR as of 2018 is the “right to be forgotten,” a principle that was established by European courts in 2014 and is another important one. When pertinent criteria are met, this enables certain specific information to be removed from search results, including Google. Generally speaking, it will be very challenging to have information about you removed from search results if it is in the public interest.
Remove any previous Online Profiles.
Finding and deleting accounts that you no longer use can’t really be sped up. However, if you’re serious about reducing your online footprint, you’ll need to find those old Myspace and Tumblr accounts and delete all traces of them. You’ll need a web browser for that, preferably on a laptop or desktop, as well as plenty of time.
Making a list of all the previous accounts you can recall using in the beginning, including usernames and email addresses, can be helpful. Then, one by one, go through each account.You’ll need to log in for each one, recover the account, and proceed with deletion. Justdelete.me has a list of links that lead to the deletion pages of everything from Gumtree to Vimeo as a convenient starting point.
Check saved logins in your password manager or browser to refresh your memory if your list of accounts to delete is getting short. You can also look through your inbox for expired subscriptions and online accounts. providing your email or phone number to the data breach notification serviceHave I been pwned? will search more than 500 databases for your information and is likely to recall some long-forgotten, old, and obscure accounts.But you’ll still need to put in the effort to close the accounts.
You should also conduct an online search for your name along with some other pieces of personal information, such as your email address or your residence, to see what results are returned. You might need to send an email to website administrators if you’re digging through your extensive online history and trying to delete old posts on forums or other similar services. A WHOIS lookup can be used to check the web registration details if the contact information is unclear, as may be the case with really old pages. Alternatively, the Wayback Machine may have saved previous contact information if it has archived the page you’re looking for.
Some specialized services will try to search for and delete your previous accounts by scanning your emails. But the parent company of the email unsubscription service Unroll frequently makes it unclear how they’re using your data. Me was discovered selling user data in 2017; therefore, if at all possible, stay away from them.
Remove all Digital History
You can still purge the data you store online even if you don’t delete your online accounts. Your Facebook and Twitter accounts may still contain posts that you’d prefer not to resurface publicly, and your email account is likely to contain thousands of old messages (and attachments) dating back years.
Here, we’ve listed some of the top ways to improve your digital hygiene. However, if you’re using Gmail, you can bulk-delete old messages by selecting all of them, using the search command “older than:,” adding a time limit (1 year or 6 months, for example), and then deleting the selection.
Photos or text that have been publicly posted are obviously much more likely to be discovered by others. Consider downloading and backing up your posts before you decide to go ahead and delete your current profiles or existing posts. The settings of almost all significant social media platforms include backup options.
Third-party services allow you to quickly delete all of your old tweets in bulk; Twitter does not. You can delete your old tweets using either TweetDelete or TweetDeleter. Both services can be a little buggy when handling years’ worth of data if you delete in bulk. It might be worthwhile to pay TweetDeleter’s $5.99 monthly fee (you can cancel after one month) in order to delete an infinite number of tweets at once. Remember that if you grant any third-party service access to your online accounts, they might be able to access the data you have stored there, including your direct messages. What each company does with your data is described in their privacy policies. Alternately, you can simply delete your Twitter account by following these instructions.
Your individual Facebook posts won’t appear in Google’s search results because it doesn’t index them. However, if you’re attempting to erase as much of your online history as you can, you should also delete old posts or at the very least make them invisible. To delete a specific type of activity on Facebook, go to Settings & Privacy, Activity Log, and choose from posts to photos that you were tagged in. If you want to erase years of Facebook usage, the tool isn’t the most efficient, but as with all attempts to erase yourself from the internet, you’ll get better results if you put more time into it. As an alternative, you could simply delete your Facebook account.
Many methods for deleting your online identity take a long time and require a lot of paperwork. In some circumstances, you might want to try to push things along more quickly or assert your legal authority. If your data contains defamatory statements, graphic images, or other harmful content, it might be advisable to get legal counsel and assistance removing it from the internet.
There are some paid options for helping you remove yourself from the web, though you should use any third-party data removal service with caution and make sure you read their privacy policies before using them. For instance, DeleteMe will make an effort to have your data removed from data brokers who sell your information. Jumbo can also notify you of data breaches and delete fresh social media posts after a predetermined period of time.
Although it’s practically impossible to completely protect your data from the internet, there are some future actions you can take. Determine how much information you want to proactively post online before anything else. When creating new online accounts, think about whether providing your personal information is necessary or if using a burner account to hide your identity would be preferable.
Avoid using Big Tech for all of your online activities whenever you can. Use end-to-end encrypted apps and disappearing messages when appropriate, choose a web browser and search engine that don’t collect your data, and be aware of the information that services like WhatsApp, Instagram, Google, Amazon, and Spotify collect about you.
Last but not least, it’s not all on you. You should also think about talking to your friends and family about your desire to disappear online. Requests to not share your location or photo on social media are probably regarded with consideration by the majority of people. After all, the head of Google’s smart speakers has stated that when guests visit a home, the residents should let them know if they have the devices.