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Being Forgotten: How To Take Charge Of Deleting Your Information

Published Sep 04, 2018 by Neil Cumins

 

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As public appreciation of data security and online surveillance grows, consumers are becoming increasingly concerned about the digital footprints their internet activities leave behind. Discreet tools like pixel trackers monitor every web search we conduct and every site we visit, building a detailed picture of our online activities for targeted advertising. And websites we contributed to years ago will retain any data we supplied, unless removal is expressly requested.

This latter aspect is often the most worrying, when a person evaluates their online footprint. Long-forgotten dating profiles and ill-judged comments on media platforms are classic examples of things we’d rather forget. It’s impossible to say who’s viewing these at any given moment, from jealous exes to identify fraudsters. But how do you go about erasing your online history, especially when many people’s internet profiles stretch back to the 1990s?

 

Prevention is better than cure

To begin with, it’s important to ensure that today’s activities don’t contribute to tomorrow’s clean-up efforts. Conduct any research or deletion activities using either a virtual private network or the Tor browser. The former creates a secure and anonymous connection to the internet (as long as the VPN provider doesn’t retain user logs), while the latter bounces data packets around the internet to ensure end-user anonymity. Drop Google in favor of a more privacy conscious alternative like DuckDuckGo. Despite the silly name, it’s a heavyweight search engine ensuring a cookie-free user experience by preventing tracking.

 

List to cull

Once you’ve stopped creating new online records it’s time to start eliminating old ones. First, compile a list of every website you’ve ever used – the Pinterest board created for your wedding, the Target account created solely to reserve a hard-to-find Christmas present, and so forth. Scan through documents on your computer’s hard drive for files or photos that might trigger a memory of an online action, and check the bookmarks lists on every device you own.

 

Search and destroy

Expand on this where-I’ve-been list by Googling your name in quotation marks, and also trawling for any online aliases you might have used, like nicknames. The displayed results often make uncomfortable viewing, but at least you’ll be among the last people to see them. Embarrassment is understandable, but anger is unjustified; free websites trade data in lieu of money, and personally identifiable information (PII) is generally only in the public domain because you put it there – either tacitly or explicitly.

That last point is especially pertinent to social media profiles, which enable and encourage us to be far too revealing about ourselves. Don’t just deactivate social profiles, thereby leaving account information on the host’s servers. Permanently delete them instead. You might have to contact individual platforms and request closure; social media firms are notoriously bad at

making it easy to delete a profile, whereas ecommerce sites ought to make it easy. Any reputable website should have a privacy policy, but webmasters are generally the best point of contact.

If you’re really struggling to remove an online profile, enter “How to delete [website] profile” into DuckDuckGo. And if removal isn’t possible for some reason, consider replacing authentic information with gibberish – false personal details, song lyrics in lieu of online bios, etc. Certain sites permit individual posts to be deleted one at a time, or edited to overwrite original content with a full stop or Lorem Ipsum filler text.

 

Going for broker

Data broker firms are another source of digital snail-trails, reselling PII to advertisers and anyone else willing to pay for it. These companies may be based abroad, beyond American jurisdiction, and they rarely welcome private citizens asking for help. Instead of having to trace individual businesses and then argue with them, it’s often easier to employ the services of a firm like DeleteMe. These privacy protection agencies expunge PII, conducting quarterly trawls of websites to erase newly-added content and double-check previously removed material stays gone.

Speaking of staying gone, even deleted content may end up cached on a backup server and therefore still visible. A little-known tool in Google’s armory is its URL removal tool, suitable for removing cached info in reasonable circumstances. There’s also a nuclear option of reporting uncooperative websites to Google and legally requesting removal. This is time-consuming and inconsistent in its results, but deleting data from search engine results makes it difficult for anyone else to find it.

 

You had mail

Finally, it’s vital to close old or dormant email accounts, which identify personal activities and frequently end up on spam mailing lists. However, only do this once any related accounts are closed, since email addresses are frequently used for logging into websites. If you can’t remember a password, you’ll need to reset it through that email account…

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