Want to move your data away from the digital world? Did an embarrassing moment go viral, or you provoked the wrong group on social media? Maybe recent news has you rethinking your online presence and wanting to take more control over your privacy. Completely erasing your online presence isn’t easy; thanks to the rise of personal data collection and tracking practices, some information will be impossible to remove. For example, if your information is on the dark web, taking it down may require law enforcement. 

 

Privacy laws differ by country and province, and some have more weight than others. Depending on where you reside, the law may support your deletion requests and claims. If you live in the European Union your personal data is subject to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which includes Article 17, the Right to erasure (‘right to be forgotten’).

 

The California Consumer Privacy Act, which goes into force in 2020, includes a similar provision. Section 1798.105 of the Bill states:

 

“(a) A consumer shall have the right to request that a business delete any personal information about the consumer which the business has collected from the consumer.”

Find out what are the privacy laws of your country or state. If the GDPR, CCCPA or a similar law applies, reach out to your regional privacy commissioner or office for assistance. It may be possible to file a formal complaint, where the business will need to provide any legal reasons for their refusal to comply, or face a hefty fine.

 

There are a multitude of companies on the internet that collect your information and sell it to advertisers and other interested parties. Some major ones include Spokeo, PeopleFinder, and Whitepages.com.

 

While it is possible to access each of these sites one by one and have your information removed, it’s a pretty cumbersome process. Every site has its own unique policy. Some require you to fax over physical paperwork, while others make you get on the phone.

 

“Anyway, an easier way to do it is to use a service like DeleteMe at Abine.com,” Eric Franklin writes for CNET. “For about $130 for a one-year membership, 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.”

 

Fortunately, however, there is a difference between complete internet erasure and becoming difficult to find. If you want to be harder to find online, you can minimize your exposure to the public eye. Here’s a do-it-yourself guide for cleaning up and cleaning out your online presence.Are you on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn or Twitter? If so you’ll want to start by cleaning house, and deleting those accounts. If you have only one, two, or three, jump right in; four, or more and you may want to consider setting up a checklist. Unfortunately, there’s no universal “delete me” process for social media accounts or online services. You’ll need to visit each provider independently to find out their process.

 

Ways to make erasing your social media accounts go more smoothly:

    • Consider backing up your data first. Any nice photos, special wishes or interesting debates you want to hold on to? If the provider has an option to download your information or media, use it. Download images, take screenshots, export contacts that you want to keep, unless you know you have them saved elsewhere.

    • Check the language during the process, and be sure you are actually removing your profile. Facebook for example, makes a distinction between ‘deleting’ and ‘deactivating’. Facebook only removes ‘deleted’ accounts. If you ‘deactivate’ your account, all of the information will remain saved, in case you decide to reactivate in the future.

    • Pay attention to messages provided when deleting your account. Will the service delete your account within 24 hours, one week, or after a month? Some companies won’t delete automatically, to avoid requests from users who change their mind or forgot to make a backup. Does the site recommend any other actions on your part, such as deleting the app from your device?

    • Delete what you can on your side to speed up the process. If you know your account will remain for 30 more days, you can delete some information earlier. Be aware, some data, such as email and name, may need to remain until erased by the service.

    • Consider running a quick check on the site’s Terms of Service. A good TOS will lay out expectations on when information is deleted, and should state if information can’t be purged. Be aware, in some cases you may not be able to have information destroyed. The service may be required to keep certain data as part legal retention requirements.

    • Keep an eye on accounts after initial requests. If there has been no action in 30 days and your information remains, follow up. Your request could have simply been misplaced!

 

Have you ever bid on an item with eBay? Do you go shopping on Amazon, or regularly read articles through an online subscription to Wired Magazine? These sites keep track of what you purchase and view online, and that data is then used for retargeting, often in third-party advertisements. Sometimes even after you remove your information from a website, you still appear in search results. What gives? In this case, the search engine could be pulling up its own ‘cache’ of the page, long after the site was edited. You’ll need a tool for this one: see “Remove outdated content” for Google, or the “Bing Content Removal Tool”. Unfortunately, you may find not all pages can be deleted: there may be legal reasons why the search engine needs to keep that cache. However, if you are committed to erasing your online data, removing outdated search results is certainly worth a try.

 

Make a list of the online sites and services you use, and delete what accounts you can. Much like social media sites, this will be easier for some accounts than others. You may be able to delete your account with the click of a button, or you may need to contact the services provider. Don’t be surprised if a service provider asks you to verify your identity. Online sites and services after all, also need to protect themselves from scammers.

 

The troubling thing about the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook fiasco, recent data breaches, and the rise in cyber attacks is the fact that you, as an individual, have very little control over your data, internet behaviors, and personal information once you release control. There’s also reason to believe that we’re currently only experiencing the tip of the iceberg. And having said that, now’s a good time to really drill down and focus on how you can protect yourself moving forward.

 

It’s impossible to actually remove your entire history or presence from the internet, but you can definitely make some great strides in limiting the amount of information others can find and use – and it’s a worthwhile task.

 

While deleting accounts for online services can be a difficult choice if you use sites frequently, when it comes to your online data, every bit counts. Be aware that the more accounts you leave open, the less of your online presence you can erase.Open up Google, and run a search using your name in quotations. After that, search your email address, home address and personal phone number, then try again with other search engines. Consider looking through other popular services, including DuckDuckGo, Bing, Yahoo and Dogpile, which may provide different results. These searches will show you what personal information you have that is easy to find. Don’t be surprised if you also find others who share your name; it really is a huge world out there! 

 

While some websites will allow you to log in and delete your data, other sites may require more effort. You may need to directly contact the website owner and make a formal request. Check if the site provides help on removing data, and if no such section exists, search for how to contact the business or individual in charge.

 

Some advice when reaching out:

    • Always keep it polite and professional.

    • Know your rights. Depending on where you and the owner are located, there may be legal precedence for removing your information.

    • Avoid sending attachments or links to other sites. Due to the nature of online hacking, many webmasters will be wary of attachments or links coming from previously unknown emails. Some have spam filters that quarantine suspicious messages immediately.

    • Follow up. Website owners, like everyone else, can get busy and forget; your email may have been lost in the regular shuffle. It’s also possible that the contact email you find on a website is only checked daily or weekly. If after a week you have yet to hear back, take a deep breath, stay professional, and reach out again.

    • Never threaten the webmaster or site owner. Not only is there no guarantee such tactics will work, but they can actually backfire. Your communications could be reposted to social media, and become even more impossible to take down.

    • Be specific. Your requests should include URLs for web pages that contain the information you want to delete. Specify what information you want to be deleted.