Americans love the Internet, with 88.5% of us active online. We have accounts everywhere, letting us kill time at work on Facebook, check Twitter for the latest news, cruise Pinterest for inspirational moodboards and hit Amazon for great shopping deals. On top of that, most of us also have a pile of inactive accounts created for discounts or one-off purchases.
With our digital footprints expanding, we are relaying more personal data than ever to trackers, hackers and marketers with and without our consent. Are we sharing too much? Do we have the right not to be tracked? Is withdrawing from the Internet entirely to preserve your privacy even possible? Let's go over each of these issues.
Creating profiles at sites you use regularly has many benefits such as ease of log-in and better suggestions for links or products you might like. But with growing concern over privacy terms that change at the drop of a hat, the sale of personal data by less scrupulous websites and the challenges of keeping stalker-y exes at bay, more and more Americans are deciding to reclaim and delete their personal data.
If you're among the roughly 59% of Americans who use a single password for a handful of accounts, deleting inactive accounts is an important security measure. If a hacker cracked that password, you could suffer a domino-effect hacking of your other accounts too, especially if they are linked via a common email address.
Aside from the accounts and profiles we willingly create, our data is also exposed as hundreds of people search websites that comb police records, courthouse records and other public records such as real estate transactions, making our personal data publicly available to anyone who look for it. Deleting this data isn't as easy you might expect — and many companies won't remove your personal details fully.
Deleting your online presence
Tracking down all your data won't be easy. There is no one service that will trawl the Internet for pieces of you, so you’ll have to dig deep and create a master list of every account you’ve created in your internet life.
Start with JustDelete.me
A site called JustDelete.me provides an incredibly comprehensive list of email, social media, shopping and entertainment sites along with notes on how difficult it is to completely erase your account and links to actually get it done. This is a great resource to help you remember and find unused profiles as well as gauging how much effort you'll have to expend to shut it down.
Find other open accounts
Next, review your email accounts, looking for marketing updates and newsletters, to get wind of other accounts you may still hold or companies that have bought your email address. Then go through your phone and check for apps that have required you to create accounts.
Once you've created a list of accounts you then should sort them according to how often you use them, if at all. Delete any you don't use. “Data is an asset to these companies,” says Jacqui Taylor, CEO of web science company Flying Binary. "Not only are these companies able to monetize you as their product, you aren't even receiving a service in exchange.”
Working off your list of accounts, head back to JustDelete.me and use it as a springboard to start deleting accounts.
Account Killer has a similar offering, and additionally can check every site you browse to for how easy it is to remove an account – before you actually create that account. To do that, grab its SiteCheck bookmarklet downloadable for Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari.
If you find it tough to cancel certain accounts – for example, a subscription that mysteriously keeps on renewing, or customer service that just won’t take you off their systems – you might want to outsource the heavy lifting with Cancel Wizard, which charges $35 per cancellation to take care of hassling the rogue site on your behalf. (It appears on AccountKiller as a link to a ‘third-party cancellation form’.)
Downloading and removing your content
If there's data you'd like to keep — say, photos or contact lists — you may be able to download them before deleting your account. Facebook and Twitter data can be downloaded in the respective Settings tabs, while LinkedIn contacts can be exported via Contact Settings.
At many sites such as Evernote and Pinterest, you won't be able to delete your account. You can only deactivate it and then manually remove personal data. At sites such as Apple, this process includes a call to customer service.
Erasing your image from public spheres
Then there are the outdated or otherwise unwanted photos floating around random sites – your bio pic from the first company you worked at, or that eyes-half-shut number from that networking cocktail night.
Start by searching for your name in Google, selecting the Images tab. Note what sites the pictures of you are appearing on, then individually contact the webmasters of the sites they appear on. You might do this through a contact box on the site, or by Googling the term “WhoIs [site address]” to find the registration info, including email address. If there isn’t one – or if you have no luck directly contacting the webmaster – try contacting their site’s hosting provider, which usually turns up in this search.
If the photos are from accounts you’ve just shut down (or otherwise recently deleted), they may continue to appear in search results for some weeks; in that case, you can make a request for Google to remove the outdated links here.
Google may also remove certain images from appearing in search results – if they contain sensitive info, like a photo of your signature or financial account details, of if they’re “revenge porn”. You can make the request here you would still need to contact the site owner to remove the images themselves, as the URL can still be found through other search engines and social media, for example.
Don't forget background checking sites
To find out which background check websites have posted information about you, check out the list of popular sites on this Reddit thread. Then go to each and try searching for your name. See if you pop up in the first few pages of search results. If you do, the same Reddit thread has information on opting out, but get ready for a hassle: usually calling, faxing and sending in physical proof that you are who you say you are. After that, expect to wait anywhere from 10 working days to six weeks for information to disappear.
Shutting down email
You may want to reduce your internet footprint by erasing rarely used email accounts, or to stopper spam from one that’s been hacked. Head to your email account’s settings and select to delete your account. If you’re diverting email from a lesser-used account, remember to send out a message with your preferred contact details first.
It’s worth noting that while Gmail makes your email address unavailable to anyone else in the future, Outlook.com releases it 60 days after you delete your account.
The final comb
Remember that Google – and most other search engines – personalize search results according to what you’ve searched for and clicked on in the past, potentially leaving out other pages where your info has appeared. Sign out of your account, and perform another search for your name.
We’ve focused on Google as it claims 73% of global desktop searches; but it’s worth searching for your name on Bing (9%) and Yahoo (7%) to see if further instances of your name or image crop up. To request outdated content be removed, you can contact Bing here; Yahoo only removes outdated search results every six to eight weeks.
Sites that don’t allow complete withdrawal
A large number of companies make it impossible to delete all traces of your accounts. According to JustDelete.me, this list includes Etsy, the online marketplace for home crafters, which retains your email address no matter what; Gawker Media, which retains the rights to all posts you made; and Netflix, which keeps your watch history and recommendations “just in case you want to come back.”
Then there's Twitter, which signed a deal with the Library of Congress in 2013 giving it the right to archive all public tweets from 2006 on. This means that anything you've posted publicly since then is owned by the government and will stay archived even if you delete your account.
To prevent future tweets from being saved, convert your settings to private so that only approved followers can read your tweets. (Go to the settings in the security and privacy section.)
Shut down your Facebook account by going to Settings, Security and then click “Deactivate my account.” You can download all of your posts and images first by going to Settings, General and then click “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”
However, you've already agreed to the social media giant’s terms and conditions, which state that Facebook has the right to keep traces of you in its monolithic servers, basically any information about you held by another Facebook user (such as conversations still in the other person's inbox or your email address if it's in a friend's contact list) will be preserved.
The divide between companies that make it easy to delete your data and the companies that make it difficult is clear. “If you're the product (on such free services as the social platforms), the company tends to make it difficult,” Taylor says. Monetizing your data is the basis of the business model for such companies.
For services like eBay and Paypal, Taylor adds, you aren't the product (both collect fees from sellers), making it easier to delete your account and associated data.
The right to be forgotten
Being able to erase social and other online data is linked to a larger issue: the right to be forgotten online. In the European Union, a Court of Justice ruling gave EU residents the right to request that irrelevant, defamatory information be removed from search engine databases. However, no such service is available to the residents of United States.
“You should be able to say to any service provider that you want your data to be deleted,” Taylor says. “If someone leaves this earth, how can their data still be usable by all these companies?”
When erasure isn’t an option
“Your digital footprint is not under your control if you're using these free services,” Taylor says.
But in an increasingly connected, virtual age, it can seem inconceivable not to have a footprint at all. Most of us use a social account to log in to dozens of other sites. Some sites require that you do so: for example, Huffington Post requires a Facebook log-in, while YouTube commenters need a Google account.
Employers frequently perform background checks through Google or dedicated third-party social media checkers. In many professions, an online portfolio of work on the likes of WordPress or Tumblr is a necessity. It's becoming increasingly difficult to communicate socially without the aid of a Facebook or Twitter account.
Given the realities of our connected world today, not being online can be seen as a negative. The key, Taylor says, is to take ownership of your data. Control how much of your personal data is available online by pruning inactive accounts. Create new accounts selectively, and post with the understanding that within a single update to the terms of service, your data could become publicly shared or further monetized.
[barcode face image via Shutterstock]
Updated on 11/4/2016