After decades of participating in the digital economy, many people are wary of having their personal information on the internet. With the right actions, it’s possible to regain personal privacy online.
Key steps to remove yourself from the Internet:
- Remove personal information from data brokers
- Go private on social media
- Close unused accounts
- Delete personal blogs and forum comments
- Enable privacy settings in browsers and search engines
- Install ad blockers
- Get rid of unused apps
- Get VPN
- Replace unwanted results in Google with new positive content
- Develop healthy online habits
Imagine this: a bad actor gains access to your phone number, a critical piece of personal data that’s often readily available online. Armed with this information, they quickly and efficiently swap your sim or hijack your digits to access your online accounts, including your most sensitive financial data, social media presence, and other online platforms.
In today’s increasingly expansive threat landscape where bad actors don’t have to be especially talented or sophisticated to gain access to valuable personal information, this scenario isn’t far-fetched. It’s the reality for millions of people each year who suffer from identity theft, financial fraud, and other cybercrimes because of the easily-accessible nature of their personal information.
Taking back your privacy isn’t easy, but it is possible. Here’s what you need to know about today’s data environment and how you can erase yourself from the internet.
What Information Is Harmful If Exposed Online?
Our personal information ends up online every day. Some of this data poses a risk to our safety, privacy, and digital security. It includes:
- Personally identifiable information (PII) like your Social security number, passport and driver’s license numbers, I.D. card, Medicare, or Medicaid.
- Banking details like bank accounts, credit and debit card numbers, pin numbers, and more.
- Account credentials including usernames and passwords.
- Health data and biometric information ( e.g. photos, fingerprints, handwriting, etc.).
- Digital identification numbers and documents.
- Full names and personal details of your family – your mother, your spouse and others.
- Your current home address and other contact details, the cost of the property and the taxes you pay as well as the mortgage taken out on it.
- Your criminal and other court records.
Whether we post this information for public consumption, corporations collect and share these details with a consortium of third parties, or threat actors steal this data in a cyberattack, its exposure and accessibility puts people at risk.
See also: Understanding Personally Identifiable Information: What Is PII and How To Protect It Online
How Does Your Personal Information Get Online?
Today’s digital ecosystem provides multiple ways for bad actors to acquire sensitive information.
Each year, thousands of data breaches compromise billions of records that are systematically distributed through Dark Web marketplaces, hacker forums, and other channels. Unfortunately for internet users, the number of data breaches has soared since 2013, culminating in a historic number of exposed records in 2020.
This information often includes personally identifiable information, account login credentials, and medical or financial records that can be used to commit identity theft, financial fraud, and more.
In addition to information collected through data breaches, threat actors can access legally compiled and easily accessible personal data through people-search engines, like Whitepages, Spokeo, Mylife and many others. People-search sites AKA data brokers collect personal information, including names, dates of birth, telephone numbers, addresses, email addresses, social media profiles, marriage records, land records, and more. This information is sold to anyone willing to pay, including crafty marketers, advertisers, dangerous actors, and cybercriminals.
Data brokers typically offer limited amounts of personal information for free while charging a fee to access more comprehensive records. However, to be competitive on Google and other search engines, personal data is increasingly offered for free, leaving users more exposed to potential bad actors.
Check if people-search sites expose your info
OneRep scans 196 data broker sites for your profiles
and removes your private information. Automatically.
Our social media accounts, blogs, and other online accounts often provide copious documentation of our personal lives and information. For many cybercriminals, this information is all they need to commit a litany of identity crimes that can have far-reaching repercussions for victims.
See also: Social Media Safety: how to protect your privacy on social media
Why Delete Yourself From The Internet?
Publicly-available personal data online poses real risks to today’s internet users. Some threats are obvious while others are more difficult to detect and defend:
- Identity theft. In 2020, the number of identity theft cases tripled from 2018 levels, reaching 1,386,615, an all-time high. Fraud cases are increasing, in part, because forging identities is relatively easy when so much personal information is accessible through a Google search. Some of this data may seem innocent (who would think that your mother’s name posted by a people-search site could cause any harm?), but a social engineer can use it to try and reset an account password. All they have to do is to match an answer to a typical security question about your mother’s maiden name. Once bad actors access an account, the cascading consequences can extend to financial records and other important platforms.Removing your personal information from the internet doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be the victim of identity theft, but it does make it more difficult for threat actors to successfully execute fraud attempts.
- Threat to your reputation. Data brokers are interested in data volume, not accuracy. It’s common for personal records to be merged with other information, meaning you can get false information like someone else’s criminal records attributed to your own name. But even if people-search sites have no criminal, traffic, or sex offender records of yours, their shady advertising practices may suggest you have them by posting deceptive teasers to your online report in an attempt to convince people to subscribe to their services.
- Real-life stalking. In 2019, a Forbes headline warned, “Social media is fostering a big rise in real-world stalking.” Since the report, social media popularity has surged, creating more opportunities for bad actors to use online information to stalk victims in real life while also exposing them to swatting, doxxing, and other digital information-driven crimes with real-world implications.
- Phishing. Phishing scams surged during the recent pandemic, reaching peoples’ inboxes with malicious messages that can compromise account integrity, financial security, and data privacy. These threats are easy to execute, difficult to detect, and nearly-impossible to punish. As a result, threat actors can use available information to craft convincing emails that prompt user engagement, stealing personal and financial information along the way. The Federal Trade Commission helpfully identifies several signs of a phishing attempt, including messages that:
- say they’ve noticed some suspicious activity or log-in attempts
- claim there’s a problem with your account or your payment information
- urge you to confirm some personal information
- include a fake invoice
- want you to click on a link to make a payment
- say you’re eligible to register for a government refund
- offer a coupon for free stuff.
- Marketing spam. Robocallers, spam calls, targeted advertisers, and spammers all rely on personal information to power their practices. Removing your personal information from the internet makes it more difficult for marketing spam to disrupt your digital environment, invade your privacy, or worse.
Before You Start
Before you set out to remove your personal information from the internet, it’s a good idea to define the scope of the problem. We suggest you do this:
1. Conduct a quick Google search
Check all of the places where your information appears. While the first few results will be social media profiles and other similar accounts, data brokers will quickly follow in the results list.
2. Check if your data has already been breached
Use a service like Have I been pwned or Hack Check to see if any of your email accounts have been compromised in a data breach. If so, change your passwords right away and maybe even close the accounts with the hacked websites.
How to Remove Yourself From The Internet
Fortunately, it’s possible to remove meaningful amounts of personal information from the internet. Here’s how to get started.
#1 Remove Your Personal Information From Data Brokers
Data brokers such as Whitepages, Mylife, Instantcheckmate and numerous others collect, sort, and distribute your personal information without your permission. Google shows “your” profiles on these sites in its search results. You can remove your personal information from data brokers, but this process can be cumbersome and complicated as each platform has its own opt-out procedure. According to our research, the average person is found on 46 data broker sites, making complete removal manually unrealistic for most people.
If you decide to invest your time into the manual removal of your listings from data broker sites, we’ve created a comprehensive guide here.
For many people, an automated approach to broker removal with OneRep is more programmatic. Here is what OneRep does:
- Scans 196 sites to find your profiles. See a complete list of sites we remove from here.
- Deletes all your discovered listings following unique procedures specific to each data broker site.
- Comes back to check if your profile has been deleted. If not, the tool starts the opt-out procedure all over again.
- Monitors 196 websites to make sure your personal information does not reappear.
Opting out of data brokers helps restore online privacy while making meaningful progress to your personal safety and that of your family.
Remove your sensitive info from the web
OneRep’s algorithm scans 196 data brokers and removes your records from all people-search sites that publish them
#2 Go Private On Social Media
Social media is designed to maximize shareability, giving everyone the capacity to broadcast their location, personal information, pictures and more. However, social media platforms increasingly provide options to make sharing more private. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and many others offer updated privacy settings that reduce data exposure and curtail the number of people with access to your account postings.
#3 Close Unused Accounts
Every forgotten website registration, buried app enrollment, or abandoned service subscription is a potential privacy violation waiting to happen.
To be sure, deleting accounts can be difficult as platforms don’t want their customers to walk away too easily. However, sites like the Wirecutter have made the process of locating and deleting old accounts more accessible. What’s more, the OneRep team has created easy-to-use opt out instructions for several prominent platforms, including Instagram, Tinder, Pinterest, and Plenty of Fish.
#4 Delete Personal Blogs and Forum Comments
Personal blog posts and forum comments can feel prescient when published, but this content doesn’t always age particularly well, and it could be used against you by bad actors looking to build digital dossiers using publicly available information. Deprive them of this resource by deleting personal blogs and forum comments.
#5 Enable Privacy Settings in Browsers & Search Engines
In addition to a growing repertoire of privacy-focused web browsers, mainstream platforms have privacy settings that can reduce data exposure. Clear your browser history, and enable privacy settings on browsers and search engines.
#6 Install Ad Blockers
Ad or content blocks prevent websites from showing data-driven advertisements from reaching your screen. Choose an ad block that prevents data from being collected in the first place, eliminating an avenue for digital platforms, data brokers, and other services from acquiring insights into your activity.
#7 Get Rid of Unused Apps
It’s estimated that more than half of the apps on our smartphones go unused. However, these apps often continue to access our location data, device activity, and other insights, feeding companies data initiatives without providing any benefit to the users.
To optimize data privacy, delete unused apps to restrict the number of platforms that you need to monitor and mitigate data collection.
#8 Get a VPN
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) prevent internet service providers and other web traffic monitors from accessing your internet usage. They also provide cybersecurity benefits by protecting your devices and accounts from unsecured internet connections, public WiFi connections, and more.
#9 Replace Unwanted Google Results with New, Positive Content
Google’s prolific algorithms are always looking for new content. Capitalize on this dynamic by removing unwanted information from the internet and replacing it with new, privacy-friendly, positive content. While Google won’t remove your date of birth, addresses, telephone numbers, or any unflattering content (with the exception of sexually explicit images posted without your consent), users can contact Google to remove sensitive PII, including financial account details, national ID numbers, personal medical records, and more.
#10 Develop Healthy Online Habits
Protecting your online privacy is an ongoing effort that requires continual care and curation. Developing healthy online habits enhances these efforts. For instance:
- fostering a highly-curated social media presence
- using email generating services and aliases
- restricting data sharing can make privacy a long-term reality.
Leaving The Internet Isn’t Always the Solution
Thinking of deleting your social media accounts to build up your online privacy? If you’ve already weighed all pros and cons and are ready to go dark, the internet is full of instructions on how to delete your Facebook, Tiktok and other accounts.
But sometimes privacy is not the only thing you need to consider. It might not even be advisable in some cases. For example, employers expect to be able to find you online and may perform a social media check as part of pre-employment screening.
In addition, when you delete social media profiles, you’re creating a “void space” in Google search results, and allowing something else to pop into the top 10 Google results. If someone publishes information about you in the future, it’ll likely be more easily discoverable. So it might be wiser to clean up your profiles and keep them active.
Ultimately, online privacy is a lifestyle. The hard work of restoring personal privacy is worth the effort, but like a new workout regime or a healthy diet, the results only last as long as the practice continues. Stick to a privacy-focused lifestyle and reap the rewards.
Most importantly, you don’t have to embark on this process alone. Visit OneRep today to learn about how we can support you in your effort to stay private.