Have you ever given much thought to how much of your personal information is out there? When most people think of personal data, they think about their credit card information, website login data, health records or social security number. But, it’s actually much wider than that. In this age of information, personal information includes; any published content about you, your browsing habits, location data, social media connections, and online purchases. Even things that are seemingly mundane, such as the way you tap and fumble with your smartphone, now constitute personal information.
As a matter of fact, if you are connected to the Internet, which is the case with most human beings on the planet, there exists a treasure trove of your personal information. Personal information is the new oil – it is being traded at light speed and powering today’s most profitable companies. You and I have made all this possible. How? By scrolling through application user agreements without reading and clicking “I agree” at the bottom so that we can have “free” access to some useful tool or feature. Think about it, the core products of Google and Facebook, that is, Search, Gmail, Facebook, and Instagram don’t cost any money. The money is in your personal information which is used to target you with ads.
So, how do you go about finding and removing your personal information from the Internet?
Finding Personal Information
There are two broad types of personal information on the Internet:
- Published content about you.
- All other types of data collected anytime you interact with a site, app or connected technology.
Published content about you is easy to find. Usually, a simple Google search with your name in the search bar will reveal where your name turns up. With this list, there are steps you can take to have the information removed.
However, a Google search may not capture everything. The next step would be to use a service that can quickly look up all publicly available data about yourself. One such service would be Nuwber.com. Nuwber also offers the ability to remove information you do not want available on their site with an easy opt-out option.
To be certain, you can then identify all the websites and applications you have ever shared your email with. There are several ways to do this:
Accounts linked to Your Email
Most apps and websites allow you to sign into them by using email authorization. For example, visiting the “My Account” section of Google, clicking the “Security” tab and scrolling down to “Third-party apps with account access”, will quickly reveal the websites and applications you sign into using Google. With this information, you can disconnect access. You can also visit these sites and read their “Terms and Conditions” to find out what information they hold about you and if there is an option or process to have them delete than information. Outlook, Yahoo and many other free email services have this option.
Social Sign-Ins With Facebook and Twitter
Similarly, many apps and websites also allow you to sign in using your Facebook and Twitter accounts. To find these sites/apps on Facebook, go to Settings & Privacy > Settings > Apps and Websites > Logged in with Facebook. And, on Twitter, visit Settings > Account > Apps and Sessions. Follow the laid out process to delete access and any data the apps have published about you.
Search your Email Inbox
Perform a search in your email inbox to find email verification messages you have received in the past. This will reveal other websites or applications you have subscribed to. Visit the sites and follow their procedures to close your account and delete your information.
Check your Browser for Saved Accounts
Most major browsers have an option to capture form field inputs so that you don’t have to type them in all the time. They also have an option to save your login information. In Chrome, simply go to Settings > Auto-fill > Passwords and in Mozilla, go to Settings > Privacy & Security > Login and Passwords > Saved Logins. Visit the sites to close the accounts and/or find if there is an option to delete any personal information these sites hold.
Deleting Personal Information
Finding personal information is one thing, deleting it can be as easy as clicking a button or as difficult as having to take legal action. For example, it’s pretty easy to permanently delete your Facebook account including your profile, pictures, posts, updates and disable all Facebook-based logins. You simply go to Security and Login > Delete Your Account and Information. Similarly, Twitter and other social media sites have an option to permanently delete your account forever. You can also delete specific posts and content items.
Generally, it is simple to delete personal information which you have control over. The difficulty begins when you want to remove personal information that is under someone else’s control.
Removing False Personal Information
Supposing you find that someone has published false, libelous, defamatory and defamatory information about you? Well, in such a situation, you have several options:
Contact the Publisher and Ask Nicely
Before waging war, it is best to first contact the publisher of the information and explain to them why you think the content is false. It may come as a surprise, but most people are willing to comply and take down the content once you prove it is false.
Contact the Web Hosting Company
If taking to the publisher doesn’t work, then contact the web hosting company. Most hosting companies have content rules. Perform a Whois search to find the name of the host company and the admin email. Some hosts also have an abuse email. Read the terms and conditions and identify if the published content is in violation. Write to the host company and request them to take down the content. However, it is important to note that many web hosts in the US prefer to leave some issues, such as defamation, to the courts for determination. They will only remove such content if you have a court order or obtain an injunction.
Report them to Google
If contacting the web host fails, contact search engines such as Google and Bing and ask them to remove the offending content from their search results. This will not remove the content but it will make the content more difficult to find unless someone knows where to look. However, you must demonstrate that the content violates the search engine’s terms of service, product policies or is a blatant violation of the law.
If all else fails, you need to get yourself a good lawyer and sue the publisher. If you are lucky, the publisher may delete the content once served with a demand letter. But, if the publisher digs in, be prepared to go through the court process and obtain a court order. Once you have a court order, serve the publisher, hosting company and Google/search engines.
If you don’t have the resources to take legal action, you may want to explore Search Engine Optimization tactics to bury the offending search result so deep in the search results that it is of no consequence. The key is creating other positive types of content using your name as the keyword and getting these to rank higher than the offending content.
As mentioned before, personal information is one of the building blocks of future corporate juggernauts. Most people have no clue that their data is being used commercially. As we move towards more connectivity and with the Internet of Things becoming a reality, there will be a plethora of data guzzling devices in our lives that collect our data. This calls for vigilance in how we share our personal information.