With so much personal data floating publicly on the Internet, consumers have a legitimate interest in controlling the flow of information. Some take matters into their own hands by opting out of certain data collection sites or using paid removal services to do the cleanup on their behalf.
Whether to do so and which option you choose depends largely on the extent of your privacy concerns, how much time and energy, if any, you are willing to spend, and how much you are willing to pay for privacy protection purposes.
“How worried are you that your phone number is out there and that people know you’re married?” said Cornell University electrical and computer engineering professor Stephen B. Wicker.
Here’s what you need to know about removing or restricting your personal information from the Internet.
Identity theft and your online footprint
It’s about data collected by many online companies, called data brokers, that aggregate consumers’ personal data, often selling it to other organizations. This data can include a person’s name, mailing address, date of birth, names of relatives, social media, property value, occupation, and other bits and pieces that can be used for various scams.
“For identity theft, it’s like a mosaic of tiles. The more tiles you have, the more accurate the simulation will be,” says Adam C. – hosts a cybersecurity podcast.
Not everyone is concerned about their personal data being publicly available, but there are legitimate reasons why some people may be highly sensitive. This includes those who have experienced or are concerned about harassment or stalking, and people who work in law enforcement or high-profile corporate jobs, said Damon McCoy, an associate professor at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering.
Self-help tools to remove personal data
For those so inclined, there are ways to limit the amount of personal information available on the Internet. Many people-finding sites, such as Spokeo, MyLife.com, and Radaris, for example, have procedures that allow consumers to request removal from their database.
Additionally, Google recently introduced a new “Results About You” tool which allows consumers to request the removal of search results that contain their personal phone number, home address or email address. While removing these results doesn’t erase people’s contact information from the web, it’s a move by Alphabet to mitigate the misuse of personal information.
You can also ask Google to remove certain links For other information found in Google Search. If possible, start by contacting the site owner and asking them to remove the content. Failing that, Google says it may remove personal data “that creates significant risks of identity theft, financial fraud, or other specific harm.” This may include non-consensual explicit or intimate personal images, voluntary fake pornography and images of minors.
The downsides of a DIY data management approach
The downside to the DIY approach is that it requires a real-time commitment and ongoing maintenance to ensure data doesn’t resurface. “You can do it yourself, it’s just a very time-consuming exercise because you have to go to individual sites and follow the rules on how to remove yourself from sites,” said Rahul Telang, a professor of information systems at Carnegie Mellon University.
What’s more, you can repeat the process because sometimes the information can reappear, meaning it’s not a one-time job. It’s a lot like “unsubscribing” to an email list, Mike Kiser, director of strategy and standards at identity security firm SailPoint, wrote in emailed comments.
“You can click ‘unsubscribe’, but it’s very difficult to verify that the data has been deleted from their end and that they haven’t resold the data to another organization, which makes it much more difficult to delete private information. – said Kiser.
Pays for subscription to scrub sites
For some people, the time and energy they have to spend removing personal information from various websites is simply too much, so they prefer to pay for a service that can do it for them and provide regular updates on the progress. Some of these services include Abine Inc.’s DeleteMe, Kanary, and OneRep.
Costs can range, often from $7 to $25 a month, depending on the provider and whether it’s an individual or family plan, Kiser said. Annual pricing is also often affordable.
For example, one of the options DeleteMe offers is $129 per person per year. Kanary offers a free version of its service and a paid version that costs $105 per year per person and $150 for a family plan that covers an individual and two loved ones. OneRep offers a $99.96 per year plan for one user and a $180 per year plan for up to six people.
It is difficult to assess the effectiveness of these services, in part because there is so much personal information in the public domain. Kanary, in the FAQ section of its website, claims a removal success rate of over 70% per user. For its part, OneRep claims to have deleted 5 million records in 2021. DeleteMe’s website says that an average of 2,389 pieces of personal information were discovered during a two-year subscription.
Before signing up for a paid service, be sure to closely compare providers’ offerings, including price, what’s included, and how often the service reports its progress to customers. You can also see if a free trial is available. Also, if you’re using a credit monitoring service, it might also be worth asking if a data removal feature is included, Levin said.
You can also see if your company pays for the service, as some employers offer it as a benefit to high-level employees, McCoy said.
Privacy laws in the US are still weaker than in Europe
In practice, it is impossible to remove every piece of online information associated with your name. Some types of information, such as public records, are publicly available and searchable, for example, online. Furthermore, some websites, especially those located outside the US, do not offer an opt-out procedure. Also, the data you can remove is much more limited in the U.S. than in Europe, where privacy laws are stronger, Wicker said.
“The reality is, when you’re there, you’re there. You can erase the information, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still there,” Levine said. That’s why he advises consumers to do ongoing privacy checks through Google and/or working with a paid provider that monitors them on their behalf. “You must continue to be vigilant,” he said.