Privacy protection in the digital age is much more complicated than it used to be. In the past, if people wanted to access your public records, they had to visit the county clerk’s office. Today, many government documents containing highly sensitive personal data are readily available on the Internet, presented together with detailed marketing profiles, personal browsing histories, and social media data. Personally identifiable information is so pervasive online that even the Pentagon has had trouble keeping it hidden.
So is it even possible to remove your personal information from the Internet? Yes, there are steps you can take to make to make your data much harder to find. ReputationDefender is the industry leader in online privacy sector, and we’ve compiled this detailed guide to help you get started.
Why your public information is online, even if you aren’t
You may wonder why so much personally identifiable information about you is accessible online. By law, certain types of government records must be made public, with access enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act. Tax liens, registered voter files, business licenses, and property tax assessor files are some of the most common public records, and they serve as a source of information for consumer confidence issues such as the true value of a property or the legitimacy of a business or professional. These records are also a powerful way to monitor the actions of government and keep it accountable.
Originally, these documents presented very few privacy threats, because they were only accessible by visiting government offices. Since the mid-1990s, however, states have worked hard to increase the availability of electronic versions of public records. Some states even sell your public records to online people-finder or information brokerage services, who then combine them and add other types of information to make much more detailed portraits of your private life.
While you can’t completely erase government public records—they’re public for a reason, after all—you can make them significantly harder to find online. As concerns with privacy protection and identity theft continue to grow, governments are adding new protections, such as automatic redaction of sensitive information and procedures to have data removed manually. You can take advantage of these protections, but only if you are proactive about it. In most cases, the default is to keep all information public.
First Steps in Protecting Your Online Privacy
Visit your county clerk to have your personal information altered or redacted.
In most states, you can have certain types of personal data changed in your public records. You can also have other types of information redacted from the electronic versions of those records. Follow these steps:
- Obtain a post office box. Certain types of records, such as voter registration forms, require an address, but a post office box can be used for many government documents in most states.
- Visit your county clerk and review your public records. Ask what information can be removed, what can be redacted, and what can be changed. On many documents, you’ll be able to have your telephone number and most of your Social Security number redacted. You can also often have your PO box listed as your address.
- Check the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) database at the county clerk’s office. The UCC database lists information on property ownership and liens and may contain your Social Security number. The clerk may not automatically show you this database when you ask to see your records, but the information is still accessible to the public.
Following these steps, you can ensure that only essential information is available from government sources.
Opt out of people-finder and information brokerage services.
Unfortunately, simply changing your public records won’t automatically protect your personal data. There are dozens of information brokerage services that sell or give away your personal information and that will continue to provide the nonredacted version of your public records unless instructed otherwise.
Most of these companies will remove personal information from their databases, although some require you to make a request in writing and to provide some proof of identification.
In the unlikely event that an information brokerage refuses to update your information, you can submit a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC won’t act on behalf of individuals, but if enough complaints are lodged, it may launch an investigation into the business.
Control your privacy through online reputation management tools.
Keeping your sensitive personal data private requires regular effort on your part, because people-search sites will continually re-add you, whenever a new piece of data appears about you online. They use automated data collection methods, so whenever something new appears about you, that information can trigger the creation of a new personal record, even if you’ve opted out.
Admittedly, protecting your privacy can feel like an overwhelming task, but it doesn’t have to be. ReputationDefender’s suite of privacy products were designed to automate and simplify the process.
Our ReputationDefender Pro service does the work of monitoring information brokerages for you, alerting you whenever new findings appear. In addition, ReputationDefender Pro offers a simple, one-click interface for opting out of people-finder services, so you can protect your privacy without having to research each individual website’s procedures and requirements. We also offer ExecutivePrivacy, a premium privacy service that provides even more stringent protection for individuals with prominent positions.
For more information on how to protect your online privacy, see our Tips for Better Online Privacy.