Want to move your data away from the digital world? Did an embarrassing moment go viral, or you provoked the wrong group on social media? Maybe recent news has you rethinking your online presence and wanting to take more control over your privacy. Completely erasing your online presence isn’t easy; thanks to the rise of personal data collection and tracking practices, some information will be impossible to remove. For example, if your information is on the dark web, taking it down may require law enforcement.

Fortunately, however, there is a difference between complete internet erasure and becoming difficult to find. If you want to be harder to find online, you can minimize your exposure to the public eye. Here’s a do-it-yourself guide for cleaning up and cleaning out your online presence.

Word of warning

Be aware that in some circumstances a lack of online public information could be a mark against you. Human Resource directors and corporate recruiters, for example, often look up potential candidates before hiring. Having nothing for them to find may not work in your favour. If this is the case, consider being strategic over what stays and what goes. Put up information that you want recruiters to see, and keep professional profiles like LinkedIn easy to find.

1. Cut away at those social media accounts

Are you on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn or Twitter? If so you’ll want to start by cleaning house, and deleting those accounts. If you have only one, two, or three, jump right in; four, or more and you may want to consider setting up a checklist. Unfortunately, there’s no universal “delete me” process for social media accounts or online services. You’ll need to visit each provider independently to find out their process.

See also: 
How to stop Facebook from tracking you across the web
15 Tips for beefing up your security and privacy on Facebook
The Ultimate guide to Instagram privacy

Ways to make erasing your social media accounts go more smoothly:

    • Consider backing up your data first. Any nice photos, special wishes or interesting debates you want to hold on to? If the provider has an option to download your information or media, use it. Download images, take screenshots, export contacts that you want to keep, unless you know you have them saved elsewhere.
    • Check the language during the process, and be sure you are actually removing your profile. Facebook for example, makes a distinction between ‘deleting’ and ‘deactivating’. Facebook only removes ‘deleted’ accounts. If you ‘deactivate’ your account, all of the information will remain saved, in case you decide to reactivate in the future.
    • Pay attention to messages provided when deleting your account. Will the service delete your account within 24 hours, one week, or after a month? Some companies won’t delete automatically, to avoid requests from users who change their mind or forgot to make a backup. Does the site recommend any other actions on your part, such as deleting the app from your device?
    • Delete what you can on your side to speed up the process. If you know your account will remain for 30 more days, you can delete some information earlier. Be aware, some data, such as email and name, may need to remain until erased by the service.
    • Consider running a quick check on the site’s Terms of Service. A good TOS will lay out expectations on when information is deleted, and should state if information can’t be purged. Be aware, in some cases you may not be able to have information destroyed. The service may be required to keep certain data as part legal retention requirements.
    • Keep an eye on accounts after initial requests. If there has been no action in 30 days and your information remains, follow up. Your request could have simply been misplaced!

2. Delete all other online accounts, including shopping, online tools

Have you ever bid on an item with eBay? Do you go shopping on Amazon, or regularly read articles through an online subscription to Wired Magazine? These sites keep track of what you purchase and view online, and that data is then used for retargeting, often in third-party advertisements.

Make a list of the online sites and services you use, and delete what accounts you can. Much like social media sites, this will be easier for some accounts than others. You may be able to delete your account with the click of a button, or you may need to contact the services provider. Don’t be surprised if a service provider asks you to verify your identity. Online sites and services after all, also need to protect themselves from scammers.

While deleting accounts for online services can be a difficult choice if you use sites frequently, when it comes to your online data, every bit counts. Be aware that the more accounts you leave open, the less of your online presence you can erase.

3. Run a search on your name, email, phone and address

Open up Google, and run a search using your name in quotations. After that, search your email address, home address and personal phone number, then try again with other search engines. Consider looking through other popular services, including DuckDuckGo, Bing, Yahoo and Dogpile, which may provide different results. These searches will show you what personal information you have that is easy to find. Don’t be surprised if you also find others who share your name; it really is a huge world out there!

You can also check haveibeenpwned.com to see if your information has been compromised by major data breaches.  Although you won’t be able to remove information that has been leaked, it will give an idea of what is available on the dark web.

4. Reach out to site owners and request they erase your information

While some websites will allow you to log in and delete your data, other sites may require more effort. You may need to directly contact the website owner and make a formal request. Check if the site provides help on removing data, and if no such section exists, search for how to contact the business or individual in charge.

Some advice when reaching out:

    • Always keep it polite and professional.
    • Know your rights. Depending on where you and the owner are located, there may be legal precedence for removing your information.
    • Avoid sending attachments or links to other sites. Due to the nature of online hacking, many webmasters will be wary of attachments or links coming from previously unknown emails. Some have spam filters that quarantine suspicious messages immediately.
    • Follow up. Website owners, like everyone else, can get busy and forget; your email may have been lost in the regular shuffle. It’s also possible that the contact email you find on a website is only checked daily or weekly. If after a week you have yet to hear back, take a deep breath, stay professional, and reach out again.
    • Never threaten the webmaster or site owner. Not only is there no guarantee such tactics will work, but they can actually backfire. Your communications could be reposted to social media, and become even more impossible to take down.
    • Be specific. Your requests should include URLs for web pages that contain the information you want to delete. Specify what information you want to be deleted.

5. Remove yourself from outdated search results

Sometimes even after you remove your information from a website, you still appear in search results. What gives? In this case, the search engine could be pulling up its own ‘cache’ of the page, long after the site was edited. You’ll need a tool for this one: see “Remove outdated content” for Google, or the “Bing Content Removal Tool”. Unfortunately, you may find not all pages can be deleted: there may be legal reasons why the search engine needs to keep that cache. However, if you are committed to erasing your online data, removing outdated search results is certainly worth a try.

6. Check the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine

Back in 2001, some archivists attempted to start archive the web. Intended as a tool for scholars, the Wayback Machine now contains 25 petabytes of data. This tool can include personal information in its archive if that information was ever publicly available on a website, including sites that have shut down. You can search the Internet Archive at https://archive.org/advancedsearch.php and contact the team at info@archive.org to ask for information removal.

7. Check your nation’s privacy laws

Privacy laws differ by country and province, and some have more weight than others. Depending on where you reside, the law may support your deletion requests and claims. If you live in the European Union your personal data is subject to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which includes Article 17, the Right to erasure (‘right to be forgotten’). The California Consumer Privacy Act, which goes into force in 2020, includes a similar provision. Section 1798.105 of the Bill states:

“(a) A consumer shall have the right to request that a business delete any personal information about the consumer which the business has collected from the consumer.”

Find out what are the privacy laws of your country or state. If the GDPR, CCCPA or a similar law applies, reach out to your regional privacy commissioner or office for assistance. It may be possible to file a formal complaint, where the business will need to provide any legal reasons for their refusal to comply, or face a hefty fine.

See also: What is the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights?

8. The advantages and disadvantages of online removal sites

As you’re removing site data, you’ll likely run across websites offering to start or complete the process for you.  For a fee, these services will search the web for your information and scrub what they can, offering a time-saving alternative to the do-it-yourself approach. There are definite advantages of tools like DeleteMe and Deseat.me: along with saving time, they may have better search functions and are able to find more than you can on your own.

The downsides of using online removal sites come down to cost and trust. Reputation management software can get expensive, particularly as you’ll likely need to run the service more than once. With information added to the internet by the second, some sites offer subscriptions just to help keep on top of it all.

The other catch of using deletion sites is that they need you to provide personal information to them first. Online deletion tools work by looking for the information you provide them and requesting it be erased from other sites. It comes down to an issue of trust: if I give my information over for a business to remove it from the web, how do I know they won’t store or sell the information themselves? Like any category of business, there is always the good and bad players. If you decide to use an online deletion service as part of your plan, check reputations and be sure to read the Terms of Service before signing up.

9. Delete the email you used to sign up for your accounts

Consider deleting the email address you used to sign up with your online accounts, and create a new one for friends, family and work. This will make it harder to find you. Many data scientists, for example, look at common fields, including email, to identify individuals in more than one database. Deleting your email will mean there is one more data element you can’t be identified with.

10. Alter your browser settings and habits

Congratulations! You’ve deleted your accounts, run a few searches and were able to remove personal information from online access points. Now to keep it that way. To remain invisible on the internet, you’ll need to stay alert and avoid giving away your data when possible.

Once you’ve cleared away at the information websites display, start fresh with better privacy protecting habits to safeguard your data. Look at the web browser and search engines you use: what is their reputation towards user privacy?  Are there extensions you can add to your browsing habits, such as Ghostery and Https Everywhere. You may also consider using a VPN as part of your internet connection, or Tor if you’re more technically-savvy. These technologies can hide your identity from websites and your browsing activity from your ISP.

We all have times we want to avoid being in the public eye, but the internet has become a new type of public record that we can’t always control. This is the reason countries in the European Union and Argentina have championed ‘the Right to be Forgotten’, and privacy advocates have argued for similar laws in other countries. For now, it’s up to individuals to keep an eye on what can be found, and stay vigilant to prevent more information from becoming available.

See also: Google alternatives that respect your privacy 

“Panic Button” By Gerd Altmann licensed under CC by 2.0