Once upon a time, it was possible to monitor what information about you was available online. But with widespread internet usage and the rise of various social media platforms, this information is not only accessible quickly, but harder to remove.
If you ever find yourself wondering whether you can erase yourself from the web, you are not alone. According to a 2022 research survey by NordVPN, 55% of Americans wish they could delete themselves from the internet, and another 42% fear that someone is going to hack them.
Wiping your private information from the internet is a difficult task, and there is rarely a guarantee that anything removed will stay offline permanently. But minimizing your digital footprint is possible.
According to Daniel Markuson, a digital privacy expert at NordVPN, you can take a number of steps to start wiping your personal information.
1. Google Yourself
The first step is to understand what information about you is out there. When you share something online, you give up control over that piece of data, so Google yourself to see what photos and personal information exists on the web.
According to Markuson, you can start by identifying any sites you’ve used that would host your data, including forums and websites you personally own. Perform a Google search for your information on sites that may have cloned or logged your data so you are familiar with what’s out there.
2. Delete, Deactivate And Clear
Once you’ve tracked down this information, remove whatever data you can and then either delete, anonymize or deactivate your accounts.
You’ll need to delete your social media profiles — especially with notorious bad actors like Facebook — and if you truly want to leave no trace, delete your accounts with online shopping, dating and other services, like Skype or Dropbox.
Keep in mind that you still need to remove data from apps and sites that you no longer use. Also note that it may take a while for search engines to clear their caches, which temporarily capture and store website data.
But that’s not all.
3. Opt Out Of Data Brokers (And Do It Regularly)
“You also need to painfully — one by one — opt out of data brokers,” Markuson said, referring to organizations that scrape the internet for private information that can be sold to third parties.
When you Googled yourself, you might have seen your information come up in results for popular data broker sites like Spokeo, MyLife, Whitepages, BeenVerified, Intelius and others that create online profiles of people.
There are tools like DeleteMe that help take down your information from data brokers. DeleteMe offers a free opt-out guide to help you request the removal of information from many of these sites — but annoyingly, you’ll have to handle each of them individually if you do it on your own.
Data is typically refreshed on most data broker websites every three months, so you’ll also need to check them regularly to stay on track.
Alternatively, you can set up a DeleteMe membership for about $129 per year. The company can help remove you from over 30 top data broker sites in the U.S. and keeps doing so for as long as your subscription lasts. When you sign up for DeleteMe, you can choose the number of people — yourself plus any family members or business colleagues, for example — and the number of years you’d like included in your subscription.
If you discovered information on platforms in the U.K. or European Union, consider signing up for Incogni, which has the capacity to remove your data from over 130 data brokers for about $70 a year. Before selecting a service, do your research on how many data broker sites it reaches and compare price points.
Gal Ringel, the CEO at Mine, an “all-in-one privacy suite” focused on data privacy rights, also recommends enlisting professional help if these steps are difficult for you to manage alone. Mine says it works as a personalized “smart data assistant” to help discover and manage your data online.
“Saymine.com helps you minimize your digital risks by allowing you to discover all the companies that hold your personal data and the associated risks, and enables you to send official data deletion requests to the companies,” Ringel said about his product, which is currently free but has a premium version planned for the future.
“If you find your personal information on other websites, you can always send a request to ask for them to delete it in the hopes that they will follow through,” he added.
If they don’t, “Google also has tools and processes to help you wipe unwanted results from the web,” Markuson said.
These methods are not permanent solutions but are intended to minimize your online presence. You can set yourself a quarterly reminder to run through these steps and checks again.
4. Pursue Legal Remedies If Necessary
There are also some legal actions to pursue when content is online without your consent. With measures like the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe and the California Consumer Privacy Act in the U.S., there are legal rights to protect data and consequences in the event of violations.
“Examples of legal actions are the many GDPR and CCPA fines,” said Ringel. If an organization fails to protect an individual’s personal data, it can face serious penalties.
Recently, for example, cosmetics giant Sephora was fined $1.2 million because it failed to disclose that it was selling consumers’ personal information and did not honor requests to opt-out of these sales. If you need to take legal action to remove information from the internet, get in touch with a lawyer for assistance.
You should be empowered to use the internet on your own terms while also remaining diligent and cautious about how your information is presented online.