"You’ll never be able to get a clean slate—but you can significantly downsize your digital footprint." - Wired
"You’ll never be able to fully delete all traces of yourself online, but you can minimize what’s out there." -Washington Post
You may have seen Cassia Artanegara’s post with suggestions on how to better protect yourself online. Although you might not be able to completely remove your data from the internet, there are things you can do to be more private. In this post we share a few tips on how to remove pieces of your digital footprint.
Years ago, the phone book contained residential telephone numbers of everyone in your area. If you lived somewhere with a large population, it also doubled as a booster seat for young children. Your name, address, and phone number were listed by default. To “unlist” wasn’t that easy. You had to submit a request by mail. If you didn’t get it in before publication, your information would be in the book until the next year’s publication.
If you want to “unlist” your information on the internet, there are options, ranging from paying for a deletion service to manually getting rid of old email accounts. Here are a few that we recommend.
- Google yourself. To find out what information you want to delete, search for yourself. You cannot remove yourself completely from internet searches, but Google gives you options for removing harmful or outdated content. While you’re there, you can also Google “how to delete yourself from the internet.” Almost all of the results suggest you do the next option!
- Opt out of data brokers. Data brokers are companies that collect your information from a variety of sources to sell to others. If you live in Europe or California, then you’re covered by the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe or by California’s Consumer Privacy Act, companies are required to delete your data upon request. If you aren’t covered by either of those, you can go directly to the data brokers. DataBrokersWatch.org has a good list. DeleteMe has a free DIY guide to opt out of the major brokers. There are also some centralized opt-out sites you can visit, like the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry and OptOutPrescreen.com.
- Delete old accounts and apps. A lot of sites collect a lot of personal information. Over the years, to set up a new account or use a new app, you most likely submitted information such as your name, email, or phone number. If you aren’t using it, delete it! When you sign up for a new account or get a new app, consider whether you absolutely need to enter your personal information. If you have to use an email, you can use “privacy friendly” email service providers. If you don’t want to set up a new email account, you use a service like one DuckDuckGo offers for free. It lets you create a unique email address that you can use to set up a new account or app. It then forwards your emails to your primary address, and removes a selection of trackers - see Will Monge’s post for more on trackers!
- Tighten your privacy settings. Many apps, by default, are set to “public.” Whether you’re doing a Venmo payment or writing a note in the New York Times Cooking app, both are public by default. Go through your apps and adjust privacy settings. The more regularly you do this, the better. This helps control who can see what. Because software is updated a lot, take the time to review your settings on apps and your devices fairly frequently.
- Pay for deletion. You can find a range of paid services that help remove your information online. However, like you do anytime you share personal information with a company, do some research first and make sure the privacy service is trustworthy.
It’s important to remember, a lot of these options take time and some take many, many steps. But soon you will notice when you Google yourself, you’ll see less and less of yourself. You can make your digital footprint smaller!
Thanks to Cassia Artanegara and Will Monge.
1. Here’s an account of one person who tried to hide her pregnancy from the internet!
2. This NYT article from 1971 is about the increase in requests to be unlisted. “For Privacy From Cranks, Creeps and Crooks, Millions Getting Unlisted Phone Numbers”
3. More Google options for reducing your online presence