In the wake of revelations about how Cambridge Analytica misused Facebook consumer data, the average Internet user is probably one of two minds. They’re either resigned to the loss of privacy, or they’re determined to delete as much information as possible about themselves from the internet. The data you leave behind in those numerous social media profiles, posts, comments, and message forums is a trail called your “digital footprint.” Both corporations and individuals collect this data for different purposes, all without your knowledge.
The World’s Biggest Elephant
The internet is the world’s biggest elephant, and elephants never forget, especially not with services like the Internet Archive, also known as the Wayback Machine, which is dedicated to preserving internet history. As described on the website, they’re “a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more.” Chances are, if you posted anything online in the history of the internet, it might still be in the Wayback Machine.
You’re not the only person uploading data about yourself. According to Erik Qualman, author of the book Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business. “What we upload about ourselves comprises our digital footprint. What others upload about us is our digital shadow.” So, even if you did #deletefacebook, valuable personal data has already been scraped from your social media profiles and put into a corporate database for marketing purposes.
Getting Control of Your Data
But take heart. You can take control of some of the information out there about yourself even if you can’t delete yourself from the internet.
First, Search Yourself
To find your digital footprint, you’ll want to run searches on:
- Your first and last name (put them in quotes, e.g. “John Smith”)
- Your phone numbers, both current and past, mobile and landline (enter all digits together 8005551212 as well as in normal format)
- Email addresses and usernames (to get the username, just take off everything after the “@” sign)
- Photos (use services like Google Image Search and TinEye)
If you want to be thorough, use different search engines because, for example, Bing and Google might offer different results.
Shut Down Old Social Media Profiles
When you search your email addresses and usernames, you might uncover forgotten social media profiles. (MySpace, anyone?) In some cases if you’ve been on the internet long enough or changed professions, you might find duplicates, especially for services like LinkedIn.
Request Google Removals
If you find a Google result that violates your privacy, you can request that it be removed from Google’s results. 43% of removal requests are accepted. To see what kinds of requests Google accepts, refer to the company’s removal policies.
Removing something from Google’s search results, however, isn’t the same thing as removing it from the website that’s hosting the invasive information. You’ll have to contact the webmaster and ask them to remove the photo or information directly.
If you discover someone is using one of your personal photos and it doesn’t fall under the fair use clause of copyright law, you can file a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown request.
Delete Photos or Strip Out Meta Data
Delete any photos you’ve posted that don’t have the EXIF meta data stripped from them. Created by most cell phone cameras, this data contains not just the date and time that a photo was taken, but also geotagging — that is, data about your location at the time you took the photo. The NSA and other government agencies use this information to track people.
Also, delete any photos of your family, especially underaged children. As proud as you might be of your kids, reduce the risk of pedophiles stalking your children thanks in particular to photo geotagging.
“Opt Out” of All Public Records Aggregators
As you might have discovered when searching your name and phone number, several companies sell data about individuals based on their aggregated public records. If you don’t want your data so readily available, you can opt out of the website.
We’ve linked to the removal instructions on some of the top public records websites:
The reports these companies generate often link to other people in your life, both past and present. Therefore, be sure to opt out not just your own profile, but also the profiles of your family members and anyone with whom you’ve lived.
Things You Might Not Be Able to Delete
You won’t be able to delete everything that you don’t want to appear on the internet. Here are some of the things that are either impossible or close to it.
- Criminal records. Even if you opt out of public records aggregators, you still won’t be able to delete your criminal records from searches.
- Comments you’ve posted on other people’s blogs or message boards. You can request removal, but the blog owner can deny your request.
- Intimate photos, aka “revenge porn.” Under Section 512 of federal law, it’s illegal for someone to post an involuntary photo of you without your consent. But if you voluntarily posed for a photo — even if it’s an intimate one — it depends on state laws whether or not you can have it removed. No federal laws cover this situation.
Keeping that Digital Footprint Small
To minimize your digital footprint in the future, follow these guidelines:
- Lock down all social media accounts and posts to “private.”
- If you join message boards, use an alias and never post your email address.
- When you’re on the internet, use a search engine like DuckDuckGo that doesn’t track your searches. (Other search engines do, even when you’re in “privacy mode.”)
- Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your current or future employer to read.
- Don’t post photos of your children unless you’ve stripped the EXIF meta data from them. Even then, you might consider limiting any public access to information about your family whatsoever.
- Change all your passwords.
Just remember that nothing is ever free. Social media profiles, email, and any other internet service that doesn’t require a credit card has hidden costs. Usually, it’s you.