Get off the grid
If you’re reading this, it’s highly likely your personal information is available to the public. And by “public” I mean everyone everywhere. To drive home this point, I give you exhibit A: Earlier this week, Facebook came under fire when it was revealed that the data of more than 50 million Facebook users found its way into the hands of UK-based Cambridge Analytica, which reportedly utilized it to better target political ads for the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election.While the full story on the Cambridge situation is still being unpacked — it was enough for Facebook to suspend the company from its network — the more disturbing aspect of the story is that your personal data on these free services is often up for grabs because you opted-in to all sorts of onerous provisions when you first signed up for these “free” services. That’s exactly why some users are choosing the “nuclear option” when it comes to online privacy: deleting or deactivating accounts when and where possible.So, how can deleting yourself from the internet prevent these companies from acquiring your info? Short answer, it can’t. Unfortunately, you can never remove yourself completely from the internet, but there are ways to minimize your online footprint, which would lower the chances of your data getting out there. Here are some ways to do just that.Be warned, however: Removing your information from the internet as I’ve laid it out below, may adversely affect your ability to communicate with potential employers.
1. Delete or deactivate your shopping, social network and Web service accounts
Think about which social networks you have profiles on. Aside from the big ones, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, do you still have public accounts on sites like Tumblr, Google+ or even MySpace? What about your Reddit account? Which shopping sites have you registered on? Common ones might include information stored on Amazon, Gap.com, Macys.com and others.
To get rid of these accounts, go to your account settings and just look for an option to either deactivate, remove or close your account. Depending on the account, you may find it under Security or Privacy, or something similar.If you’re having trouble with a particular account, try searching online for “How to delete,” followed by the name of the account you wish to delete. You should be able to find some instruction on how to delete that particular account.If for some reason you can’t delete an account, change the info in the account to something other than your actual info. Something fake or completely random.Using a service like DeleteMe can make removing yourself from the internet less of a headache.
Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET
2. Remove yourself from data collection sites
There are companies out there that collect your information. They’re called data brokers and they have names like Spokeo, Whitepages.com, PeopleFinder, as well as plenty of others. They collect data from everything you do online and then sell that data to interested parties, mostly in order to more specifically advertise to you and sell you more stuff. Now you could search for yourself on these sites and then deal with each site individually to get your name removed. Problem is, the procedure for opting out from each site is different and sometimes involves sending faxes and filling out actual physical paperwork. Physical. Paperwork. What year is this, again?Anyway, an easier way to do it is to use a service like DeleteMe at Abine.com. For about $130 for a one-year membership, the service will jump through all those monotonous hoops for you. It’ll even check back every few months to make sure your name hasn’t been re-added to these sites.>> Use coupon code “MARCHMADNESS18” to receive 50 percent off DeleteMe plans.See DeleteMe Plans
3. Remove your info directly from websites
First, check with your phone company or cell provider to make sure you aren’t listed online and have them remove your name if you are. If you want to remove an old forum post or an old embarrassing blog you wrote back in the day, you’ll have to contact the webmaster of those sites individually. You can either look at the About us or Contacts section of the site to find the right person to contact or go to www.whois.com and search for the domain name you wish to contact. There you should find information on who exactly to contact.Unfortunately, private website operators are under no obligation to remove your posts. So, when contacting these sites be polite and clearly state why you want the post removed. Hopefully they’ll actually follow through and remove it.If they don’t, tip No. 4 is a less effective, but still viable option.
4. Remove personal info from websites
If someone’s posted sensitive information of yours such as a Social Security number or a bank account number and the webmaster of the site where it was posted won’t remove it, you can send a legal request to Google to have it removed.You may have to exercise Google’s legal powers to get your personal information removed from a stubborn site.
Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET
The removal process could take some time and there’s no guarantee it’ll be successful, but it’s also your best recourse if you find yourself in such a vulnerable situation.
5. Remove outdated search results
Google’s URL removal tool is handy for erasing evidence of past mistakes from the internet.
Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET
Let’s say there’s a webpage with information about you on it you’d like to get rid of. Like your former employer’s staff page, months after you’ve changed jobs. You reach out to get them to update the page. They do but when you Google your name, the page still shows up in your search results — even though your name isn’t anywhere to be found when you click the link. This means the old version of the page is cached on Google’s servers. Here’s where this tool comes in. Submit the URL to Google in hopes it’ll update its servers deleting the cached search result so you’re no longer associated with the page. There’s no guarantee Google will remove the cached info for reasons, but it’s worth a try to exorcise as much of your presence as possible from the internet.
6. And finally, the last step you’ll want to take is to remove your email accounts
Depending on the type of email account you have, the amount of steps this will take will vary. You’ll have to sign into your account and then find the option to delete or close the account. Some accounts will stay open for a certain amount of time, so if you want to reactivate them you can.An email address is necessary to complete the previous steps, so make sure this one is your last.
One last thing…
Remember to be patient when going through this process, and don’t expect to complete it in one day. You may also have to accept that there are some things you won’t be able permanently delete from the internet.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published in December 2014. It is periodically updated.