How to remove yourself from Internet search results and hide your identity | ZDNet

How to remove yourself from Internet search results and hide your identity

Here is a step-by-step guide to reducing your digital footprint online, whether you want to lock down data or vanish entirely.

No right to be forgotten? A step-by-step guide to reducing your digital footprint online

There is now a very thin line, easily broken, which separates our physical and digital identities.

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find and evaluate your social media presence to ascertain if you are a suitable candidate.

A misjudged tweet from years ago or an inappropriate Facebook photo can destroy future job prospects or ruin a career. A Google search that reveals an old conviction can make it more difficult to become hired, and -- whether true or not -- allegations of criminal conduct spread online can cause misery.

There's the idea that once something is online, it is immortal, immutable, and almost impossible to contain. In other words, you should not put anything online you wouldn't want your grandmother to see, in case the consequences damage you or your prospects further down the line.

However, keeping your digital information in check is not just about information that you put online. Monitoring the passive data collection conducted by companies from you is important, too.

Abuse, stalking, and bullying may also factor as reasons to erase our digital footprints and seize control of our devices. If you suspect your mobile device has been compromised by spyware or stalkerware, you can check out our guide here.

If you want to take control of your privacy and online data, here are some tips to get you started.

Not much time? Check out this abridged version...

Google is your 'friend'

In 2019, the European Court of Justice ruled that privacy standards worldwide as it does in the EU.   

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In the EU, if a request for a name or specific links connected to an individual is deemed acceptable, the tech giant scrubs away these links. However, Google has long argued that extending the "right to be forgotten" on a global scale could set a dangerous precedent and clash with laws implemented in other countries.  

The company also claimed that extending the law could turn the request feature into a "censorship tool" -- in what appears to be in direct contrast to reports of the tech giant's plans to woo China with a censorship-friendly search service.

Also: filling in this form, de-listing requests are reviewed manually by Google employees. Since 2014, Google has received 846,327 requests to delist related to 3,338,864 URLs.

Also: here.

Also: HaveIBeenPwned service is run by cybersecurity expert Troy Hunt and can be a useful tool to discover if any account information belonging to you has been compromised or included in a data breach. If you find an email address connected to you has been pwned, check to see what data breaches you have become embroiled in -- and make sure you change your passwords as quickly as possible. 

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Google accounts

Make sure you visit the Google Account page, where there are a number of settings that can boost your privacy, reduce data collection, or remove you altogether from the ecosystem.

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Privacy checkup: The Google Privacy checkup allows users to prevent Google from saving your searches and other Google activity to your Google Account, as well as turn off your location history.

You can also choose to disallow Google from saving YouTube search & watch history and a record of videos you have watched, your contacts, device information, voice and audio activity including recordings harvested from interaction with Google Assistant, and other data.

In this section, you can also choose whether or not to allow Google to use your information to tailor advertising during your browsing sessions.

Also: Security checkup can be used to show you which devices have access to your account, including laptops, PCs, and handsets. You can also find a list of any third-party applications which have been granted permission to access your account. Revoke permissions as necessary.

Delete me: Found under Account Preferences, Google's deletion service can be used to delete select products, or remove your account entirely.

For a quick fix, use a service

There are a number of services available out there in which you can pay to keep your information away from data brokers.

One such example is DeleteMe, a paid subscription service which maintains tabs on data collection and release, as well as removes data including names, current and past addresses, dates of birth, and aliases on your behalf.

In turn, this can keep your private information off search results and away from platforms such as open people search databases.

Also: unroll.me can list everything you are subscribed to, making the job of unsubscribing from newsletters, company updates, and more far easier.

However, this service is not currently available to those in the EU due to GDPR regulations.

Lock down your social media accounts or delete primary accounts entirely

Facebook: In the Settings tab, you can download all of the information that Facebook holds on you.

You should also take the opportunity to lock down your account. In the Privacy tab, you should restrict your posts to 'friends only,' limit your past posts, and you can also decide to disallow lookups through your provided email address or phone number.

An important element that shouldn't be overlooked here is the option to remove your Facebook profile from search engine results outside of the social networking platform.

Under the Location tab, consider turning off location data collection by Facebook, too.

Twitter: Twitter also allows users to request their archive, which is all the information collected from you. This option can be found under the Settings and privacy tab.

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In the settings area, you can also choose to lock down your account entirely and make tweets private and only viewable by those with your approval; you can turn off tweets containing location data; you can decide whether or not to allow email and phone number searches to connect others to your profile, and you can choose whether or not to allow others to tag you in photos.

Under the Safety portion of the tab, you also have the option to prevent your tweets appearing in the search results of those you have blocked on the micro-blogging platform.

Instagram: Facebook-owned Instagram has a number of privacy settings you can also change to maintain an acceptable level of privacy.

By default, anyone can view your photos and videos on your Instagram account. However, by going to your profile, clicking Settings, Account Privacy, and switching 'Private account' on, you can make sure your content is only viewed by those you approve.

Remove everything: A more extreme option is to delete all of your primary social media accounts completely.

In order to do so on Facebook, you need to go to Settings, General, and Manage your account to deactivate it. This gives you the option to return at a later time and does not delete your data. Your settings, photos, and other content are saved, but you will not appear beyond unclickable text.

Deactivating your account gives you the option to take a break and return later, and will take you off searchable results. 

Also: you need to click on Settings and privacy from the drop-down menu under your profile icon. From the Account tab, you can then click deactivate.

To delete your Instagram account, log in and go to the request deletion page. Once you have submitted an answer as to why you are deleting your account, you will be prompted to re-enter your password, and then a delete account option will appear.

Delete and deactivate old accounts

Deseat.me is an automated option for requesting account removal and subscription deletion from online services.

It is incredible just how many accounts you may have tied to your account, which -- as it was in my case -- could be in the hundreds.

You will need to temporarily give the service access to the email account that is used to sign up for services and allow it to send emails on your behalf. However, this can be quickly removed afterward, and even if you do not use the tool for its intended purpose, Deseat.me can still give you valuable insight into what is connected to your email account.

Another alternative is Account Killer, which also gives users a rating system that describes the complexity of account deletion processes provided by online services.

Hide yourself

If you cannot delete online accounts outright and only deactivate them instead, before you do, wipe as much content from them as possible. If the account is no longer relevant to you, consider changing the name and personal details connected to it, as well as remove or change photos to generic alternatives.

When it comes to active accounts such as on Tor onion router network. Tor is used by the privacy-conscious, activists, and those seeking a means to circumvent censorship barriers such as the Great Firewall of China. If you use the network to browse the Internet, anyone attempting to monitor you would be met with a series of nodes used to divert your encrypted traffic, making it very difficult to trace you back to an original IP address. 

The most permanent measure

Starting from scratch may seem extreme, but in some cases, could be worth considering. The outright deletion of email accounts, social media, and e-commerce services won't immediately destroy all data or search results connected to them, but it will, over time, make them less likely to appear.

Just make sure that before you take this irrevocable step you have backed up any data that you want to keep, such as irreplaceable photos you have uploaded to social media or stashed away in your email inbox.

Related stories:

  • How to delete yourself from the internet CNET
  • How to deal with your online accounts before you die CNET
  • Protect your identity by deleting your internet presence TechRepublic
  • Nine ways to disappear from the internet (free PDF) TechRepublic
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