Your Private Data Is All Over the Internet. Here's What You Can Do About It
It's not easy to disappear from the web, but we'll show you how to get started.
Eric FranklinFormer Editorial Director
Eric Franklin led the CNET Tech team as Editorial Director. A 20-plus-year industry veteran, Eric began his tech journey testing computers in the CNET Labs. When not at work he can usually be found at the gym, chauffeuring his kids around town, or absorbing every motivational book he can get his hands on.
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If you're reading this, it's likely your personal information is available to the public. And by "public" I mean everyone everywhere. It's never a bad time to get your internet privacy ducks in a row and effectively "delete" yourself from the internet. But if you're wondering how deleting yourself from the internet can stop companies from getting hold of your info? Short answer: It can't.
You can never completely remove yourself from the internet, but there are ways to minimize your digital footprint, which would lower the chances of your personal data being out there. Be forewarned, however: Removing your information from the internet, as I've outlined below, could adversely affect your ability to communicate with potential employers. Still interested? Here are some ways to disappear your digital self.
1. Delete or deactivate your shopping, social media and web service accounts
Think about which networks you have social media profiles on. Aside from the big ones (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn), do you still have old accounts on sites like Tumblr? MySpace? What about your Reddit account? Which shopping sites have you registered on? Common ones might include information stored on Amazon, Gap.com, Macys.com and others.
To get rid of these accounts, go to your account settings and look for an option to either deactivate, remove or close your account. Depending on the account, you may find it under Privacy or Security, or something similar.
There are companies out there that collect your information. They're called data brokers, and they have names like Spokeo, Whitepages.com and PeopleFinder, as well as plenty of others. They collect data from everything you do online and then sell that data to interested parties, mostly in order to more specifically advertise to you and sell you stuff.
Now you could search for yourself on these sites and then deal with each site individually to get your name removed. Problem is, the procedure for opting out from each site is different and sometimes involves sending faxes and filling out actual physical paperwork. Physical. Paperwork. What year is this, again?
Anyway, an easier way to do it is to use a service like DeleteMe. For $129 per year, the service will jump through all those monotonous hoops for you. It'll even check back every few months to make sure your name hasn't been re-added to these sites.
Be warned: If you remove yourself from these data broker sites, you'll also mostly remove yourself from Google search results, therefore making it much harder for people to find you. DeleteMe also gives you a set of DIY guides on how to remove yourself from each individual data broker if you'd like to do the process yourself.
First, check with your phone company or cell provider to make sure you aren't listed online and have them remove your name if you are.
If you want to remove an old forum post or an old embarrassing blog you wrote back in the day, you'll have to contact the webmaster of those sites individually. You can either look at the About us or Contacts section of the site to find the right person to contact or go to whois.com and search for the domain name you wish to contact. There you should find information on who exactly to reach out to.
Unfortunately, private website operators are under no obligation to remove your posts. So, when contacting these sites be polite and clearly state why you want the post removed. Hopefully they'll actually follow through and remove it.
If they don't, tip No. 4 is a less effective, but viable option.
4. Remove personal info from websites
If someone's posted sensitive information of yours such as a Social Security number or a bank account number and the webmaster of the site where it was posted won't remove it, you can send a legal removal request to Google to have it removed.
The removal process could take some time, and there's no guarantee it'll be successful, but it's also your best recourse if you find yourself in this vulnerable situation.
5. Remove outdated search results
Let's say there's a webpage with information about you on it you'd like to get rid of -- like your former employer's staff page, months after you've changed jobs. You reach out to get them to update the page. They do, but when you Google your name, the page still shows up in your search results -- even though your name isn't anywhere to be found when you click the link. This means the old version of the page is cached on Google's servers.
Here's where this tool comes in. Submit the URL to Google in hopes it'll update its servers, deleting the cached search result so you're no longer associated with the page. There's no guarantee Google will remove the cached info, for reasons, but it's worth a try to exorcise as much of your online presence as possible from the internet.
6. And finally, the last step you'll want to take is to remove your email accounts
Depending on the type of email account you have, the number of steps this will take will vary.
You'll have to sign into your account and find the option to delete or close the account. Some accounts will stay open for a certain amount of time if you want to reactivate them.
An email address is necessary to complete the previous steps, so make sure this one is your last.
One last thing...
Remember to be patient when going through this process, and don't expect to complete it in one day. You may also have to accept that there are some things you won't be able to permanently delete from the internet.