In today's interconnected world, where information flows freely through the digital arteries of the internet, preserving your privacy is of paramount importance. Your personal data is a valuable commodity, and understanding how to safeguard it has never been more critical. Embarrassing old posts, data brokers selling your information, a desire for more privacy; there’s any number of reasons for wanting to erase yourself from the internet. Welcome to your ultimate guide to privacy in the digital age.
Privacy-focused apps, better browsing practices, and data broker opt-outs are all ways to scrub as much information as possible from the internet are a good starting points.
Why Remove Yourself From The Internet?
Perhaps you've come across discussions about the potential risks to your online privacy but dismissed them, given that the internet has become an integral part of our lives, and the idea of selling your data may seem inevitable. While there is some truth to that, it doesn't mean you have to willingly surrender every aspect of your online presence, nor do you have to consent to the unrestricted use of your data.
Unscrupulous data brokers often rely on the perception that extricating oneself from the internet is a daunting and time-consuming task, dissuading most people from attempting it. Nevertheless, there are smaller, more manageable measures you can adopt to increase the difficulty of accessing and selling your data to third parties.
If you belong to the Millennial or Gen Z generations, your formative years were predominantly, if not entirely, spent in the online realm. Those posts from 15 years ago (hopefully) do not represent the person you are today, yet they remain easy targets for anyone looking to stir up controversy. Purging such outdated content from the web serves as a proactive measure, not to mention a therapeutic one.
Leaving sensitive information exposed online also makes you susceptible to hackers. For instance, if you have stored your debit or credit card information in your Amazon account to streamline the checkout process, all that data becomes accessible to malicious hackers in the event they gain access to your password. They wouldn't even require your banking login credentials.
Another factor at play is the impact of the digital realm on our lives. The Social Dilemma film exposes additional underlying issues affecting communities and countries. The documentary crafted by the individuals behind the film, vividly illustrates the significant adverse effects of the digital world, extending even to individuals who abstain from using these platforms.
How to Scrub Yourself From The Internet
Having addressed the "why", let's now delve into the "how" of erasing your digital presence from the internet.
Considering the ubiquity of our online identities and the near necessity of some degree of internet engagement in today's society, completely eliminating your online footprint is an exceptionally challenging endeavour. Nevertheless, this doesn't imply that you can't implement protective measures.
Applications, specific services, and practicing sound digital hygiene all contribute to the ease with which malicious entities can access your information and determine the extent of data accessible for potential theft.
1. Opt Out Of Data Collection
Think of data broker sites as enormous repositories of personal information, comprising various data points about individuals. When you search your name and address online, you'll likely encounter numerous websites that display details about you. Some offer limited information for free, while others provide more comprehensive data for a fee.
These data brokers gather and consolidate personal information from a variety of sources, which may include:
- Public records available online.
- Data from your publicly accessible social media profiles.
- Records of the websites you visit and the mobile apps you use.
- Information shared by retailers who have access to your loyalty card data.
Additionally, data brokers often purchase personal information from other data brokers, resulting in some of them amassing extensive data sets containing thousands of data points for billions of individuals worldwide.
To illustrate the scope of their knowledge, a data broker may possess information such as the price you paid for your home, your level of education, your historical residences and cohabitants, your driving record, and potentially even your political affiliations. They may also be privy to seemingly trivial details like your favourite ice cream flavour or preferred over-the-counter allergy medication, thanks to data obtained from loyalty cards. Furthermore, they might have health-related insights gleaned from fitness apps. The breadth and depth of personal information in their possession can be remarkably extensive.
Given the potential granularity of this data, it's unsurprising that the data brokerage industry generates an estimated £164 billion British Pounds in revenue globally each year.
You can request your data to be removed directly by contacting data broker, or you can use one of the dedicated services to do that for you: DataBrokersWatch.org
2. Google Yourself
The primary platform where most people seek information about you is the largest search engine, making it worthwhile to examine the results of a Google search using your name. Ideally, the initial search results should include links to your LinkedIn profile, personal website if you have one, or social media profiles.
Pay close attention to personal details like email addresses, residential addresses, and phone numbers. If you observe this information appearing on questionable websites or in places where you never shared it, it's essential to take action.
Given that Google must adhere to GDPR regulations, you have the option to submit a request to them for the removal of your data from search results. It's important to note, however, that this action won't eliminate your name from the actual website where the information was originally published; it simply prevents it from being displayed on Google.
Additionally, you can utilize Google's Remove Outdated Content tool to update search results, ensuring that any old or obsolete information pertaining to you is no longer visible. It's crucial to bear in mind that the page in question must significantly differ from the current data or no longer exist. For more comprehensive guidance on removing specific information from Google search results, such as non-consensual explicit content, refer to Google's documentation on managing pages you own or eliminating personal content.
3. Do Some Digital Spring Cleaning
Still hanging on to that old MySpace account? Neglecting to clear out your email trash folder from the ancient past? Tidying up these dormant accounts and message archives is a smart strategy to minimize the abundance of your digital footprint.
Begin by erasing obsolete social media accounts you no longer utilize. If the thought of parting ways with Facebook (rebranded recently to Meta) or Twitter (rebranded recently to X) doesn't sit well with you, consider performing a bulk deletion of your posts and giving your timeline a thorough cleanup. While Facebook's (Meta) process may not be the most straightforward, you can archive your previous posts, download them, and subsequently remove them from your wall, essentially starting anew.
For added control over your online presence, explore the fine-tuned privacy settings available on platforms like Facebook. Navigate to Settings & Privacy > Settings > Privacy and methodically customize each setting according to your preferences, from determining who can view your posts to regulating search accessibility.
Take a moment to revisit the privacy settings within your chosen web browser and maximize your privacy measures if you haven't done so already. Many browsers offer features to automatically delete cookies and browsing history upon closing, prevent cookie storage, and prohibit the sharing of your browsing data with browser creators such as Google or Mozilla.
Conduct a thorough privacy assessment on all your social media accounts. Update outdated passwords, and venture into the privacy section within the Settings menu to establish the strictest privacy settings feasible. If you're no longer active on Twitter (X), consider deleting your account altogether or utilize a third-party application for bulk removal of old tweets.
In the realm of Gmail, swiftly locate and eliminate batches of aged emails by using the search tag "older_than:" followed by a specified time frame (e.g., "6m" for six months or "2y" for two years). It's also wise to regularly empty your email's trash folder if you haven't done so lately.
Unless it's a professional account, refrain from disclosing contact information like email addresses or phone numbers in any of your social media biographies. Implement unique passwords for each website or service, and consider the option of recording them in a physical notebook as a safeguard against potential hacking, as it remains disconnected from the internet. Alternatively, explore reputable password manager programs, ensuring they are both legitimate and secure by scrutinizing user reviews and conducting thorough research on the company. We covered up password related knowledge in our other article10. Consider using a password manager.
4. Fight Tech With Tech
Disposing of outdated digital remnants is a commendable endeavour, but in today's digital landscape, we continually leave traces of data behind with every online interaction. Fortunately, there exist methods to erase or diminish these persistent digital footprints.
Given that a substantial portion of your online footprint originates from Google searches, encompassing data related to your preferences, contemplated purchases, location history, and more, a logical starting point is to explore a private search engine. There are other search engines, that do not store any details about your searches..
Privacy-focused web browsers typically incorporate private search as the default setting. The more advanced ones even provide Tor routing capabilities, which obfuscate your location and anonymise your browser fingerprint, rendering it more challenging for online entities to distinguish you from other internet users. Notable examples include the Brave browser and the Tor browser, although numerous other options are available.
If you prefer not to switch browsers, engaging in Private or Incognito mode while browsing can offer a degree of anonymity. Although not foolproof, as your internet service provider (ISP) still retains a log of the websites you visit, it represents a step toward enhanced privacy.
To further safeguard your online communications, consider employing encrypted services. Signal, for instance, employs end-to-end encryption, rendering your messages exceptionally difficult to decrypt in comparison to Messenger, WhatsUp or Telegram, which gather more or less data about your usage and messages. Another widely adopted application for encrypting email messages is ProtonMail, and PreVeil stands as another viable choice in this category. Kleopatra can be used as a plugin for email encryption in Outlook and Thunderbird. For more information about these solutions, please refer to their documentation as configuration of them is beyond the scope of this article.
For an additional layer of security, consider utilizing apps like Burner, which allow you to shield your actual phone number. This can reduce unwanted robocalls and complicate the efforts of malicious hackers attempting to acquire your authentic personal number.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) serve to conceal your true location by employing counterfeit Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, creating the illusion that you are accessing the internet from a different geographical area. Certain web browsers have integrated VPN functionality, while others offer standalone applications or services. If your aim is to conceal both your location and browsing data, a robust VPN is worth considering.
5. Use Common Sense Best Practices
Exercising caution in the face of potential malware, viruses, and spam is the most effective strategy for avoiding phishing attempts that could inadvertently lead to the disclosure of your personal information. It's crucial to exercise discretion when it comes to clicking on links and opening emails.
Exercise prudence when deciding what content to share online, bearing in mind that anything you post could potentially become public. Avoid disclosing your precise location unless it is absolutely necessary. Additionally, exercise restraint in granting apps access and permissions on your mobile device, especially when these permissions pertain to sensitive data like your location.
Engaging in open communication with your friends and family is vital. Make them aware of your desire for a reduced online presence and kindly request that they refrain from posting photos of you or, at the very least, avoid tagging you in any images they do choose to share. Additionally, convey your preference for them not to disclose your whereabouts on social media platforms. Here is a good video showing potential dangers of posting content on social media.
It’s Impossible to Completely Disappear
Achieving a complete erasure of your online presence may be unattainable, but it is certainly within your reach to significantly reduce your digital footprint. Moreover, you can fortify your online security to such an extent that only a determined cyber attacker would stand a chance of locating you.
Begin with the fundamentals and gradually progress, recognizing that major tech companies don't readily facilitate online navigation with stringent privacy measures. Initiate your efforts by tightening privacy settings both within your web browser and on your social media accounts. Additionally, contemplate the utilization of encryption for your text messages and emails, and consider engaging private browsing modes.
Take the time to educate yourself on the precise nature of the data collected by companies such as Google, Facebook (Meta), Telegram, and WhatsApp, in order to better comprehend the extent of your online exposure11. It's advisable to sign out of your accounts when you've finished using them, as this practice enhances your resistance to tracking efforts. As you become more knowledgeable about virtual private networks (VPNs), encryption methods, and security protocols, consider upgrading your strategies accordingly.
It's undeniable that implementing these measures can be cumbersome, and it's precisely this inconvenience that major tech companies anticipate—hoping you'll become either too overwhelmed or too frustrated to persevere. However, if your aim is to approach as close to online anonymity as possible, the effort invested is unquestionably worthwhile.
Queen’s holds an Academic Centre of Excellence in Cyber Security Education (ACE-CSE) Silver Award from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology (DSIT).