The way to protect your privacy online can all be summed up by answering two simple questions:
- How much information can you dig up on the Internet of yourself?
- Does the Internet display information about yourself that you want people to see?
Per the first question, you may think you know all the ways, but chances are you don’t.
Per the second question, the answer for most people is no, and that they want to change it.
This article will inform and teach you most of the ways your personal information is spread across the Internet and what you can do about it.
(Disclaimer: This document is not legal advice. If you need to get the law involved in any way, shape or form when it comes to your personal information and/or privacy, consult with an attorney.)
What do you mean most of the ways? Why not all?
The social landscape of the Internet changes on an almost monthly basis where new things are introduced in social media all the time, so it’s impossible to list ways your personal information is spread because I can’t predict the future. However this guide will provide valuable information that will immediately help you right now.
Whom am I safeguarding my information from?
Most people would believe articles like this are for protecting your information from government organizations. If you are one of those people, that’s not what this is about. What it is about is protecting your information from nosy people (such as an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend), spammers, telemarketers and even future employers.
We’ll start with the basics and then move on to the advanced methods of protecting your personal information online.1. Get your phone number unlisted.
If you have a landline phone that’s listed in the phone book, that information is 100% public. Your number is provided along with your name and physical street address.
When you get your phone number unlisted, it will take as long as a year before the information is no longer on the Internet (you have to wait until the next publication of the phone book is released), unless you kick-start the process. See step 2.2. Contact every “whitepage” web site and request to be unlisted.
Ordinarily, whitepage web sites do not show up in Internet search results, so you will have to seek out these places manually, search for your information, and if found, make a request to have it removed.
The easiest way to do this is to go to Google and search for the term whitepage listings. Go to every site you find that lists information of that type, search yourself on each and start the process of getting yourself unlisted.
Note that this will take time. You will spend at least a good 30 minutes to an hour contacting these sites and going through the process of having yourself removed – but it is worth it.3. Delete everything on your Facebook “Wall” and “Notes”, if present.
If you use Facebook, you have a “Wall”, and that Wall is full of things you’ve posted there. Many of these things might be a genuine source of embarrassment for you if they were ever leaked outside of the Facebook site. How would they be leaked? By one of your friends that takes a screen shot, of course. Heck, you might even end up on LameBook.
Deleting your entire Facebook Wall is painfully slow task if you have loads of content there. If for example you have been posting content to your Wall for one year’s time, it will take you several hours to delete everything because there is no way to mass-delete anything on Facebook. This includes Wall posts, photos and the Notes feature, should you use it. Also, because Facebook’s interface is designed so poorly, you will have to close out your browser, restart and re-login to Facebook several times just to get the job done.
Also watch out for being “tagged” in photos. If there are any tags you don’t approve of, untag yourself.4. Set your MySpace profile to private along with any personal blog posts.
If you use MySpace for personal reasons (meaning not business), set your entire profile to private, then go through your MySpace blog posts, should you have any, and set private any one that contains anything you would consider embarrassing. Like with Facebook, do the same for MySpace photos as well.5. Google yourself by real name and nickname.
Everybody knows how to do this one. Go to Google and search yourself by your real name.
However I have a few additional tips.
Google yourself by your nickname as well. If your name is John Doe but sometimes you go by Jack, also search for Jack Doe.
If you have a common name used by many, add your location along with the Google search. If you live in Massachusetts USA for example, search for John Doe Massachusetts and John Doe MA to see what comes up. You might be surprised what you find.
As for what you do with what you find, I’ll cover that in a moment.6. Google yourself by screen name.
For some, a screen name can be just as strong of an identifier as a real name, so be sure to search Google for your screen name to see what shows up.
Again, as for what you do with what you find, I’ll cover that in a moment.7. Image-Search yourself.
This is one that many people don’t do, but obviously matters. Search for your name, nickname and screen name on Google Images and Bing Images. If you’ve been on the Internet for a while and there are a few photos of you floating around out there, chances are good they will show up in an image search while they won’t in a regular text search.
Once again, as for what you do with what you find, I’ll cover that in a moment.8. Use a password manager to store all your accounts.
For many of us, we have so many things we signed up for over the years that we’ve completely lost track of them. During your searching as outlined above, you will most likely run into accounts you completely forgot you signed up for. Hopefully you will be able to remember the password for them, login, edit the profile or simply delete the account.
I suggest using KeePass Password Safe to store your password information locally to a USB stick. It’s a free program, and a good one at that.
Remember: Most of what is on the Internet that would serve to embarrass you are probably things you posted a long time ago that you completely forgot about.
When you know everything that’s out there, you can control it much easier. This starts with putting every single account you’ve ever signed up for in a password manager.
Note that for some accounts there is absolutely no option to delete the account entirely, so you’ll have to do what I call a “blanking”. See next step.9. “Blank” the profiles you want to keep or cannot delete.
“Blanking” a profile is where you simply remove any and all personal information from it, but the account stays active. For example, this is a popular thing to do with Facebook because you want to keep the account open to keep in contact with your friends, but at the same time don’t want to overly reveal anything that could be potentially embarrassing.
Some web services even to this day provide no option to permanently delete your account. One such example is AIM. You cannot delete an AIM account. In fact, here’s what AIM says on the subject:
We are sorry to hear that you want to cancel the AIM service. There is no way to unsubscribe from or cancel the AIM service. However, if you wish to discontinue with this service, you can uninstall the AIM software from your computer.
That being the case, your only option is to login and blank the profile.10. Delete the accounts you no longer use.
If you have the ability to delete an account you no longer use, do it. Leaving it there will do more harm than good because privacy policies change, and what was private information before could change to public, and of course you won’t discover this until it’s too late and your personal information is already out there and indexed in the search engines.
It’s most likely true that if you search for how to delete your account via the web service’s site itself, you won’t find any instructions on how to do it. You’ll have to go to Google and search there for a way to go about it.
The best way to search Google for how to delete a specific type of account is to search for the term, “How do I delete a X account?”, where X is the type of account you want to delete, such as “Hotmail” or “Yahoo”, and so on.What to do with what you find on the Internet about yourself that you cannot change
For the places you find that you administer, such as social profiles and instant messenger accounts, those are easy to control because you can delete or blank them.
For the places you don’t have any control over, that can be a bit tricky.
There are three major types of media that exist on the internet: Documents, Photos and Videos. For each there is a different way of handling how to get them off the Internet.Documents containing your personal information
Any type of text that exists on the Internet is a document. A plain text file, an e-mail, a web page, a forum post, a Wiki-style post, a formatted document (such as a Word DOC) and so on. Any text that exists anywhere is a document.
The documents that you’re most concerned about are those that are in public view that reveal personal information and are accessible to anybody.
Important note before continuing: The following only applies if your personal information IS NOT listed publicly on the Internet. If it is listed publicly, such as in a whitepages listing, then it’s free and clear for anyone to copy and post wherever they want. If it IS NOT listed publicly, then you have something to work with.
- If the document is a social media profile post (such as a Facebook Wall post) by someone else: The first thing to do is to contact the author and request to have it removed. If that doesn’t work, you will have to file a system abuse report via that specific web site.
- If the document is on a public forum: The first thing to do is contact the forum administrator and request the document be removed. If he or she doesn’t respond, you then contact the forum host provider or the web host provider and file an abuse report there.
Always remember to be POLITE and PROFESSIONAL whenever requesting to have a document removed. If you act angry, you won’t get anywhere. Be nice.Photos of you/your likeness
Any photo of you anywhere on the Internet can be removed per your request. Some are easy to remove while with others it takes more effort.
- If the photo of you is on a social network: Ask the author politely to have it removed first. If that doesn’t work, file an abuse report for that user on that social network.
- If the photo of you is posted on a photo sharing service: File an abuse report and it will be removed quickly. Whether it’s Flickr, ImageShack, PhotoBucket or just about any other photo sharing site you can think of, they will honor almost any request for removal. If your likeness is within the photo, you can claim – quite honestly – that you did not give permission for it to be displayed on the Internet and that usually is enough of a reason for a photo sharing site to have it taken offline permanently. If the person who posted the photo simply reposts it, you can file another abuse report and it will be removed. If the person who posted it continues to repost over and over again, he or she will eventually be banned from the system entirely.
- If the photo of your is posted on a hosted web site: Contact the web site administrator first and politely request that it be removed. If he or she refuses, contact the web host provider for that site and state the photo was posted without your permission and that it violates the web host provider’s terms of service/use.
Videos of you/your likeness
This is the toughest one to deal with because the options available to you are simply awful. The only site I’m going to concentrate on is YouTube, being they are the #1 video sharing site people use.
In basic terms, there are only four ways to get a video of you that you find personally embarrassing offline:
- Contacting the author of the video in question and convincing him or her to remove it.
- Using YouTube’s internal “Flag” function in an effort to have the video removed from YouTube.
- Flagging the YouTube user who posted the video directly so his or her “channel” is removed from YouTube.
- Filing a Digital Millennium Copyright Act complaint.
It’s the fourth point I’m going to go into more detail on because the first three are self-explanatory.
You should never file a DMCA complaint unless you have exhausted all other options. People on YouTube often use the ability to easily file DMCA complaints as a quick solution rather than a proper legal solution.
Remember that filing a false DMCA complaint can get you in very real and very serious legal trouble; this is not something you should take lightly.
As I said above, only use the DMCA complaint when you’ve exhausted every other option available to you.
The truth of the matter when it comes to video content is that as long as you ask a video author politely and nicely to remove a video, they usually will do it.
Also remember that you can copyright any video of yourself as long as someone hasn’t copyrighted it before you. All you need to do is submit it to the Library of Congress; everything you need to know is at http://www.copyright.gov. They now have it so you can do it completely online using eCO (Electronic Copyright Office). Yes, this is true! Check out the eCO FAQ for yourself!Final Notes
There will be some who read this (maybe even yourself) that think, “The only people who would take this many steps to safeguard their personal information on the Internet are outright paranoid.”
You would be wrong there.
One very simple example of why the guide isn’t only for the paranoid is if you’re looking for a job. If all a potential employer has to do is do a quick Internet search of your name and finds images of you at a party drinking and taking bong hits, chances are you won’t get that job. Or the next one. Or the next one after that. If you have a blog, do you cuss and swear on it a lot? Have you told people to “f*ck off” periodically in public on the Internet? Even if it’s just text, if your name is attached to it, that speaks volumes about you in a negative way.
It is important to protect your personal information and retain privacy where you can. At first it will be difficult and there will be lots of “clean-up” involved, but once done you will be far better off not only on the Internet, but in life itself.