We live in a world where nearly everyone’s personal information is available to the public, which probably isn’t the best idea.
Services that we think of as free – Instagram, Gmail, Google Docs and WhatsApp, for example – actually come at a major cost: your personal data.
While it can easy to shrug your shoulders and say, “I have nothing to hide”, that’s not the point. Privacy is a basic right. Just because you have nothing to hide doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to hide it.
We put curtains on our windows so nosy neighbours can’t look in, and we still close the bathroom door despite the fact that everybody poops. Our online privacy should be considered as important as our privacy in the physical world.
Companies intentionally make it difficult for you to erase your data from their services, but with some time and effort, you can control how much of your personal information is roaming around the internet.
Here are some tips to clean up your online data and improve your privacy.
1. Delete or deactivate your online accounts
Take a second to think about all the shopping, entertainment and social media websites that you’ve registered an account on. Big ones like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and The Iconic are easy to remember, but the chances are that you won’t be able to remember every single account you’ve ever created.
To delete most accounts, you need to navigate to your account settings and look around for an option to deactivate, cancel or remove your account. Most of the time it won’t be easy to find because, well, they don’t want you to leave.
If you’re really struggling, do a quick web search with “website + delete” and you’ll usually be able to find instructions. There are also services like DeleteMe and DeseatMe which will help you track down and delete your online accounts.
2. Directly remove your information from individual websites
Whether it’s an old tweet, MySpace display picture or photos of your 21st birthday party on Facebook, at one time or another most of us have put something questionable on the internet. It could even be a Reddit comment or an IGN forum post fuming about snow in Skyrim.
The most thorough way to get rid of undesirable posts and information is to go right to the source and delete it. In some cases, account providers won’t allow you to delete information, but they’ll let you edit it. In cases like that, just write some gibberish to get around it and remove the original content.
If you’ve written something on a website you don’t have control over, you can contact the webmaster directly. You can usually do that in the About Us or Contact sections of the site, but you can also search for contacts at www.whois.com.
Keep in mind that private website owners and operators are not obligated to remove your content. While they will probably be more than happy to help, be sure to use your please and thank yous.
3. Remove your information from data collection sites
Believe it or not, there are companies solely dedicated to collecting and storing your information.
Data brokers like Spokeo, PeopleFinder and countless others collect data from every single thing you do online and sell it to the highest bidder – mostly for use in targeted advertising.
You can search for yourself on these individual websites (of which there are thousands) and individually delete your name and data. But there are just too many and the process is different for each site; sometimes you even have to send manual paperwork. Paperwork in 2018. Horrific.
The best way is to use DeleteMe again. For $129 per year, they will do it all for you.
4. Send a legal request to have search results removed
If someone has posted something sensitive that you want removed – think your bank account information or your phone number – and they refuse to remove the information, you can send a direct request to Google to have it removed.
You can also reach out to Google to update or remove a web page. For example, if you have a blog post you can’t take down or you feature on a website you don’t want to be associated with, said page will show up when people Google your name, even if it’s been updated.
This is where Google’s URL removal tool comes in handy. Submit the outdated URL and Google will ensure the address is no longer associated with your name. Like most of this data deletion business, there are no guarantees, but it’s the best shot you have.
5. Delete your email accounts
There is nothing like a fresh start. If you’re anything like me you’ll have about thirteen email addresses you set up for Netflix free trials, ten for when you forgot your Apple ID and one or two terrible ones you set up in primary school.
Sign in to every account you can remember and delete them. If you are currently using several email addresses, remember to email your contacts and let them know you’ll now be using just one central account.
Ideally, you want to set up a fresh new email that doesn’t use Gmail, because the service allows Google to read your emails and send that information to advertisers. ProtonMail is a great, free email provider that offers a private and encrypted email experience for its users.
Remember that getting rid of your online data is a process that takes time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and your privacy can’t be returned in one, either. It’s also important to keep in mind that some things are going to be impossible to delete.
There are pages and pages of guides out there to help you configure a private online life, but they aren’t always practical.
For example, I know Google has dubious privacy policies, but I accept that because I’m reliant on the ecosystem. I don’t use Docs or Photos, but I have to use Gmail and Google’s search engine. You will have to make similar decisions with your own privacy.
Now that you’ve cleaned up your online data, here are a few tips to ensure that you maximise your privacy in the future.
- Do not use WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger: use encrypted open-source messenger apps like Signal or Telegram.
- You don’t have to be an online pirate to use a VPN: everyone should have one. Mullvad and NordVPN are two of the best.
- As mentioned earlier in this article, delete unnecessary accounts and think carefully about making new ones.
- Do not use Google, Yahoo or Microsoft email: use encrypted email services like Protonmail and Disroot.
- Ideally, use Mozilla Firefox or Brave as your web browser, but anything is better than Chrome.
- Use privacy add-ons with your browser including HTTPS Everywhere, Self Destructing Cookies, Ghostery and Privacy Badger.
- Avoid social media at all costs: you are literally giving away your data to companies for free.
- Don’t use simple passwords and never use the same password for every website. KeePass or 1Password are great password managers.
If you’re interested in learning more about online privacy best practices, I would recommend watching Glenn Greenwald’s 2014 TED Talk, “Why Privacy Matters”, and reading “Hiding on the Internet” by Michael Bazzel, a former CIA Cyber Crimes investigator.