With so much personal data floating publicly on the internet, consumers have a legitimate interest in controlling the information flow. Some are taking matters into their own hands, opting out of certain data-collection websites or using paid removal services to do the scrubbing on their behalf.
Whether to do this, and which option you chose, depends largely on the extent of your privacy concerns, how much time and energy, if any, you are willing to expend and how much you are willing to pay for privacy protection purposes.
“How much does it bother you that your phone number is out there and that people know you are married?” said Stephen B. Wicker, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University.
Here’s what you need to know about removing or limiting your personal data from the internet:
Identity theft and your online trail
At issue is data collected by scores of online companies called data brokers, which aggregate consumers’ personal information, often selling it to other organizations. This data can include a person’s name, mailing address, birthday, relatives’ names, social media, property value, occupation and other nuggets that can be leveraged for various scams.
“For identity theft purposes, it’s like tiles in a mosaic. The more tiles you have the more the impersonation can be accurate,” said Adam K. Levin, a consumer affairs advocate and former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs who co-hosts a cybersecurity podcast.
Not everyone is as concerned about their personal data being available to the public, but there are legitimate reasons why some people may have heightened sensitivity. This includes those who have experienced or are concerned about harassment or stalking, and people who work in law enforcement or in high-profile corporate jobs, said Damon McCoy, associate professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering.
Self-help tools to remove personal information
For those who are so inclined, there are ways to limit the amount of personal information available on the internet. Many people-search websites such as Spokeo, MyLife.com and Radaris, for example, have procedures to allow consumers to request removal from their database.
Additionally, Google recently rolled out a new “Results about you” tool that 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 scrub a person’s contact information from the web, it’s a step Alphabet has taken to mitigate the misuse of personal information.
You can also ask Google to remove certain links to other information found in a Google Search. If possible, start by contacting the website owner and asking that the content be removed. If that fails, Google says it may remove personal information “that creates significant risks of identity theft, financial fraud, or other specific harms.” This could include non-consensual explicit or intimate personal images, involuntary fake pornography and images of minors.
Downsides to the 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 reappear. “You can do it yourself, it’s just a very time-consuming exercise because you have to go to individual websites and follow the rules about how to remove yourself from the websites,” said Rahul Telang, professor of information systems at Carnegie Mellon University.
What’s more, you may have to repeat the process because sometimes the information can reappear, meaning it’s not a one-and-done endeavor. It’s a lot like “unsubscribing” to an email list, wrote Mike Kiser, director of strategy and standards at the identity security company SailPoint, in emailed comments.
“You can click ‘unsubscribe,’ but it is very difficult to verify that the data has been deleted from their end — and that they haven’t already resold the data to some other entity, which makes deletion of private information much more challenging,” Kiser noted.
Paying for a subscription to scrub websites
For some people, the time and energy they’d need to spend to remove personal information from the various sites is simply too extensive, so they prefer to pay for a service that can do it for them and provide regular updates on the progress. There are a handful of these services, including Abine Inc.’s DeleteMe, Kanary and OneRep.
Costs can range, often $7 to $25 a month, depending on the provider and whether it’s an individual or a family plan, Kiser said. Annual pricing is often available as well.
For instance, one of the options DeleteMe offers is $129 per year for one person. Kanary offers a free version of its service and a paid version that costs $105 annually for one person and $150 for a family plan, which covers an individual and two loved ones. OneRep offers a plan for $99.96 per year for one user and $180 per year for six people.
It can be hard to gauge the effectiveness of these services, partly because there’s so much personal information in the public domain. Kanary, in the frequently asked questions section of its website, claims a removal success rate of more than 70% for every user. For its part, OneRep claims to have deleted 5 million records in 2021. DeleteMe’s website says that 2,389 pieces of personal information, on average, are found over a two-year subscription.
Before signing up for a paid service, be sure to compare providers’ offerings closely, including price, what’s included and how often the service reports its progress to customers. You could also see if a free trial is available. Additionally, if you’re using a credit monitoring service, it could also be worth asking whether a data removal feature is included, Levin said.
You might also see if your company pays for the service, since some employers offer this as a benefit to high-level employees, McCoy said.
U.S. privacy laws still weaker than in Europe
Practically speaking, it’s impossible to remove every morsel of online information tied to your name. Certain types of information, such as public records, are publicly available and may be searchable online, for instance. What’s more, some sites — especially those hosted outside the U.S. — don’t offer a procedure for opting out. Additionally, the data you can remove is much more limited in the U.S. than in Europe where the privacy laws are stronger, Wicker said.
“The reality is once you are out there, you’re out there. You can delete information, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still out there,” Levin said. That’s why he recommends consumers do ongoing privacy audits by Googling themselves and/or working with a paid provider that monitors these things on their behalf. “You have to continue to be alert,” he said.
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