This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.
Whether you are online shopping, visiting a social media site, using an app, or sending an email, everything that you do on the Internet leaves behind a “digital footprint,” which is very valuable to data broker firms that analyze, package, and sell information about millions of people without their knowledge or permission. The firms that purchase this data use it for targeted advertising, direct marketing, and risk assessment. With all this data publicly available, the potential loss of privacy is great. As such, many people wonder how they can keep their personal information off of the Internet.
In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, “86% of Internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints—ranging from clearing cookies to encrypting their email, from avoiding using their name to using virtual networks that mask their Internet protocol (IP) address.” Most of these people are trying to prevent their personally identifying information, such as their name, address, phone number, email address, and social security number, from being publically available.
Of course, there are many other reasons why someone would want to remove his or her data from the Internet. Business owners, for example, might want to delete copyrighted information. They also might want to eliminate negative reviews or bad publicity, which can easily ruin their business’ reputation, leading to a loss of customers and revenue.
Unfortunately, there is no quick or easy way to remove your name entirely from the Internet, but there are several ways to greatly reduce your online presence.
If you truly want zero search results to appear when someone searches for your name, then you’re going to have to drastically change your lifestyle—to a degree that is probably unrealistic in this day and age.
According to Bradley Shear, a social media lawyer, going completely off-grid means that people wouldn’t be able to use any electronic devices that could record their location or activities. They would also have to pay in cash or barter for all transactions. Because of the ubiquitousness of the Internet in the modern business environment, these actions would make running a successful enterprise very difficult, to say the least.
What does it mean to remove yourself entirely from the Internet?
Luckily, for those who want to protect their privacy while still taking advantage of the many conveniences and business opportunities that the Internet offers, there is a middle ground. This strategy involves maintaining a basic online profile but deleting or obfuscating as much personal information as possible.
How do I remove my information from the Internet?
The first rule of Internet privacy is to not post anything personal in the first place: If you decide to put it on the Internet, it is not private. It’s that simple. Don’t post anything online that you don’t want the public to know about.
Beyond this, there are a few simple ways you can reduce the amount of online information available about you.
Find where your name is mentioned and ask for it to be removed
This step seems fairly straightforward at first: Run your name, and all variants of your name, through search engines and begin contacting the websites with your name on them. If your name appears on a friend’s Facebook page, then ask him or her to remove your name. If your name shows up on a website listing, then use the site’s contact form to request removal.
Be warned though; removing yourself from “people search engines” such as Spokeo, PeopleFinder, Whitepages.com, and Pipl can be a frustrating experience. Sites like these are essentially clearinghouses of public records. Provided a record hasn’t been sealed or otherwise removed from public access, these sites collect the information, upload it to their servers, and then sell it to anyone who wants it.
In theory, you can ask each company to remove your information from its site. In reality, though, these sites often fight against removal requests, and they will often re-add the records you’ve requested they delete when a new public record is created somewhere else online.
As such, the opt-out process requires a lot of time and effort, visiting dozens of white pages and personal data broker sites repeatedly, and scouring their results for all variations of your personal information.
Delete (or at least severely edit) your accounts
If you really want to disappear, then you need to delete all your online accounts, including your social media, shopping, and Web service accounts. However, this is a drastic step that most people are not prepared to take. A much more realistic approach is to keep your accounts open but minimize the amount of personal information that is available about you online.
However, if you want to close an account, you should start with your social media accounts. Be careful, however, as social media companies work hard to prevent you from deleting your accounts. For example, if you choose to delete your Facebook, and then you log into it, for any reason, in the next two weeks, the company will automatically reinstate your account.
Also, remember that even if you delete a social media profile, the data does not necessarily disappear. The company may still keep that information in its databases. However, at least you’re not providing any more information to them.
To delete these accounts, go to the account settings of the account in question and search for a link to deactivate, close, or remove your account. Depending on the particular account, this option may appear under “Privacy” or “Security” or something similar.
Alternately, you can choose to make your social media accounts “professional,” which will keep the account but erase any personal data from and turn your social media presence into more of an online business card. A good reputation company may be able to help you more thoroughly revise your social media accounts.
Give out as little identifying information as possible
It may seem like it’s impossible to keep your information private. But the truth is that most of what the Internet knows about you is information you give to it, and this gives you power. So, when you are using a website that asks you to fill out a form, you should think carefully about what kind of information you enter.
Amazon, for example, already knows your credit card number; your address; your relatives’ addresses; and your shopping, reading, and movie preferences. Why give it any more information about you by filling out its Profile section, which asks you to provide your occupation, describe what kinds of pets you own, list who else lives with you, and more?
These sites can’t collect information if you don’t provide them with the data in the first place. This is the key principle to deleting yourself from the Internet; you are the one providing the data, and all you have to do is limit what you put out there.
Fortunately, there are many places on the Internet that don’t care about your personal information. They just want you to use their service. While it may not be the most popular of services, you can easily find email on the Internet that keeps your information private, and if you want to pay bills and do other errands online, you can set up a dummy email account that can receive receipts and other necessary messages while generating little to no data about you. Just remember that keeping your name off the Internet is a big commitment—one that may require you to complete a lot more paperwork.
Constantly monitor your privacy
Unfortunately, removing your information from the Internet is only the first step in taking control of your privacy and your reputation. Because people are continually posting new content, you will need to constantly monitor the Web for new mentions of your name. This means you’ll have to routinely search for your name on review sites, social media sites, personal and industry blogs, and public records sites.
If you think this sounds like a lot of tedious, boring work, you’re right. Monitoring the Internet takes a lot of time and effort. This is why ReputationDefender developed its line of privacy services—to automate the grunt work involved with protecting your privacy, thereby enabling individuals to take control of their information without having to give up their valuable free time to do so.