How To Remove Personal Information From The Internet | Incogni
With cybercrime at an all-time high in 2022, cleaning up your digital footprint should be high on your priority list. But how do you remove your personal information from the internet? That can seem like an impossible challenge to tackle.
The truth is, it’s almost impossible to remove all of your data from the internet. That’s why it’s so important to consider your priorities before you start. Like what kind of information can be dangerous if exposed, how your data gets on the internet, and even how private you want your information to be.
To help you figure all that out, we’ve put together a guide that will cover everything you’ll need to know about removing online information.
Below you’ll find:
- What is personal information and why is it such a big deal?
- What kind of personal information ends up on the internet and how does it get there?
- What should you do before you start removing your information?
- 14 steps to remove your personal information from the internet.
What is personal information, and why is it such a big deal?
Personal information is any data point that directly or indirectly relates to a particular consumer or household. Personal information can include names, location, purchasing history, internet browsing history, work history, and educational history, among other identifiers.
Many internet users don’t see the harm in having their personal information online. After all, companies like Google claim they need it to optimize the user experience. While this is true, many companies also use the data they collect for purposes other than what they openly advertise.
This can include:
- Influencing your purchases
- Keeping you on their website longer
- Selling your information to data brokers
- Sharing your data with unsafe apps and third parties
Even when these companies don’t deliberately use your personal information in a careless or harmful way, there are still many associated dangers. For example, there were 1,862 data breaches in 2021 alone. A record high in an alarming upward trend in yearly data security breaches.
Whether through breaches or readily available public records, cybercriminals can use your personal information for scams, identity theft, extortion, and even online stalking.
What kind of personal information ends up on the internet, and how does it get there?
The next thing you should be aware of if you want to keep your data private is exactly how it ends up on the internet and what kind of information is commonly collected.
Everywhere you go, online and offline, you leave a digital footprint. From the apps you use to track your daily steps to the pharmacy loyalty program you’re subscribed to, even the government – everyone collects your data.
Some of the information that may be exposed online includes:
- Names and aliases
- Biometric information
- Past and current addresses
- Location history
- Phone numbers
- Email addresses
- Political affiliations
- Sexual orientation
- Financial information
- Health information
- Social security numbers
- Internet browsing history
- Purchase history
- Property records
- Criminal convictions
- Marriage certificates
- Birth certificates
- Employment history
- Business contacts
- Education history
- Information about family members
How personal information gets online
According to Pew Research, 74% of Americans want to control who has access to their personal information. But taking control isn’t easy without knowing who has your data or how to prevent them from getting it.
Here are the three main sources of your personal information:
- Your activities on the internet.
Believe it or not, you are the main culprit in creating your digital footprint. You put a lot of your personal information online through the websites and apps you use. The good news is that you have control over how much. You can (and should) also stop using any websites or apps that demand too much data as well as those you just don’t need.
Here are some of the biggest ways you put your own personal information online:
- Email accounts
- Smartphone apps
- Social media
- Dating sites
- Personal websites
- Online shopping sites
- Shopping loyalty programs
- Unsecured websites
- Private businesses rely on collecting data
There are many businesses that rely on collecting your personal data. Unfortunately, they often do this without you even realizing it. For example, most of the free apps your download gather a ton of your personal data in the background and often sell it to third parties. In fact, most free online services are free because you pay with your data.
The biggest culprits when it comes to collecting your personal information without your knowledge are:
- People-search sites
- Data brokers
- Tracking technologies such as browser cookies
- Phone companies
- Banks, credit cards, lenders
- The government
The government is another big source of the data you have online. While this information is necessary for the government to have, it’s often easily available for strangers and companies like data brokers to exploit.
The information the government provides includes:
- Birth records
- Death records
- Marriage records
- Licensing records
- Driving records
- Court records
- Criminal records
- Immigration records
What should you do before you start removing your information?
There are a few steps you should take before you start to remove your personal information from the internet. Believe it or not, this is the hardest (and most important) part of the process. But if you take the time to do these things, you’ll thank yourself later!
- Start with a Google search to find out what information others can see
Removing your information from the internet can feel like an impossible task. A great place to start and gain your bearing is with a quick Google search. This way, you can find out what information is readily available online and what others can see.
- Use incognito mode to prevent autofill and online tracking.
- Look up important information that could be linked to you such as your name, address, and even family members.
- Take notes of what you find, including any social media sites and data brokers that come up.
TIP: set up a Google Alerts notification on your name so that you can stay up to date whenever new information pops up online.
- Decide how much information you want to remove from the internet
Once you have a good idea of how much exposed data you have online, it’s time to decide how private you want to go. Though 86% of Americans have tried to reduce their digital footprint, not everyone is ready to take all their personal information offline.
Some questions you’ll want to answer are:
- What tools and services are you not ready to give up?
- What kind of information are you uncomfortable leaving online?
- What are the benefits of the tools and services you want to keep using vs the risks of leaving the information they require online?
If you don’t want to wipe your data from the internet completely, you will have to strike a delicate balance between the tools and services you want to keep using, the amount of information you want to be erased, and the risks you are willing to take.
TIP: Always remove PII (Personally Identifiable Information) that has the potential to create significant risks of identity theft, financial fraud, harmful direct contact, or other specific dangers.
Always remove the following if you come across it:
- Confidential government identification (ID) numbers like US Social Security Number
- Bank account numbers
- Credit card numbers
- Images of handwritten signatures
- Images of ID docs
- Highly personal, restricted, and official records, like medical records
- Personal contact info (physical addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses)
- Confidential login credentials
How to remove your personal information from the internet in 14 steps
Now that you’ve got the hard part out of the way, the rest should be pretty easy. Just follow the steps we’ve outlined below and take into consideration what you decided in the previous steps.
Step 1: Browse the internet in private
The first step is more of a preventative measure, but it will go a long way to protecting your data privacy in the future. Browse the internet in private whenever you can.
The best way to make your internet activity private and secure is with a trusted VPN such as Surfshark. This will encrypt your data, creating a secure tunnel so that your personal information isn’t susceptible to external attacks.
If you can’t purchase a VPN, we recommend enabling private browsing on your browser. This will ensure you don’t leave behind a trail of history, passwords, or cookies. Here are the private browsing options for some of the most popular browsers:
- Chrome – Incognito mode
- Mozilla Firefox – Private browsing
- Microsoft Edge – InPrivate browsing
- Safari- Private browsing
Step 2: Remove your personal information and optimize Google privacy settings
Google is one of the biggest culprits in collecting personal data. So if you want to scrub your internet presence, this step is a must.
Head over to the Google activity controls page to delete any stored data and turn off tracking on web and app activity, location history, YouTube history, and ad personalization.
TIP: Enable auto-delete on your web and app activity to make sure any new accumulated information will be deleted periodically.
Step 3: Opt out from data brokers
Data brokers are another huge contributor to the trade and sale of your personal information online. There are around 4,000 data brokers that scrape the internet for any available data, compile intrusive personal profiles, and publish them online or sell them to third parties such as marketing agencies and other data brokers.
Unfortunately, making them delete your personal information won’t be easy. According to research conducted by Surfshark, it would take up to 66 years to take your personal information off the data broker market.
To remove your information from data brokers’ databases, we recommend you do the following:
- Research which data brokers have your personal information (results will vary based on location and other factors),
- Send data removal requests to each broker that has your data,
- Periodically repeat the process as new data brokers pop-up. Most brokers will collect your information again even after you opt out.
If you don’t have the time to do this manually, you can try our automated data removal service. With a monthly or yearly subscription, you can delete and keep your personal information off of hundreds of data broker databases.
You can learn more about data brokers here.
Step 4: Delete your social media accounts
We are actually responsible for a lot of the personal information that ends up online. And our social media activity is the biggest culprit. Websites and apps like Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, and Tinder collect and share a lot of our personal information.
The best way to prevent this is to delete all of your social media profiles. Realistically speaking, however, most people aren’t ready to quit social media cold turkey like that.
What we recommend in this case is to delete any unused or obsolete social media profiles.
Step 5: Optimize the privacy settings of the social media accounts you are not ready to give up
The customization and options will be different for each website or app you use. However, these are the key settings you should watch out for:
- Information that is public – We recommend you set your social media profiles to private wherever possible so that only your connections can view them.
- Ad personalization – Disable ad personalization to avoid marketing companies getting (and sharing) your data.
- Data sharing with third parties – Turn off or restrict data sharing wherever possible. This is responsible for spreading a lot of your information online.
- Online activity tracking – Turn off activity tracking to avoid being targeted by consumer behavior predictions.
- Location tracking – Turn off location tracking to keep your whereabouts private. We also recommend deleting any location history.
Step 6: Delete any apps you don’t need
Most of our phones are loaded with a ton of unused apps. But when it comes to data privacy – less is more. Many of the apps on your smart devices collect your personal information, from your location to your online habits. While a lot of us can’t function anymore without apps like Google Maps or Messenger, you should consider clearing out anything you can live without.
When uninstalling apps you don’t need, keep in mind that you should first check the privacy and account settings to make sure your data is also deleted. In some cases, you’ll have to contact the developer directly to remove your personal information.
Once you’ve deleted the unnecessary apps, we recommend you regularly go through your devices to check on existing apps’ privacy settings and continue to delete the apps you don’t use.
Step 7: Delete any online accounts you aren’t using
The same goes for your online accounts. With all the accounts we open throughout our lives, it’s easy to lose track of the ones we no longer use. Unfortunately, these websites are still likely sharing your personal information. So make sure you delete anything you aren’t using anymore. This includes old social media profiles, blogs, and e-commerce sites.
To help you dig up old accounts you’ve long forgotten, we recommend you check all of your active email accounts. Search your inbox for keywords such as “welcome,” “Thanks for signing up,” “account,” and “registration.”
Once you’ve tracked them down, go to the account settings on each site to delete or deactivate your account. If you have forgotten the log-in credentials, try resetting them or contacting their customer service.
Step 8: Cancel your shopping loyalty programs
This step will be hard for the shopaholics out there. While they can be great for savings, all loyalty programs store your shopping history, and many of them sell that information to data brokers.
The good news is that some loyalty programs have the option to opt out of having your data sold. You can check their websites for a “do not sell my information” setting. If you don’t find this option, we highly recommend you deactivate your account.
Step 9: Opt out from marketing associations
The next step would be to opt out of any marketing associations that might have your data. These associations help marketers make the best use of your data.
While marketing associations give consumers the option to regulate how they handle your data, these selections usually require cookies and are device or browser-specific. So keep in mind that if you don’t have cookies enabled, clear your browser cookies, or change devices, your choices won’t be saved.
With that in mind, here are some of the largest marketing associations you’ll want to opt out from:
- The Data & Marketing Association
- The Network Advertising Initiative
- The Digital Advertising Alliance – AdChoices and AppChoices
Step 10. Erase public records
A lot of the personal information online comes from public records such as court records or Department of Motor Vehicles files. You won’t be able to delete this information everywhere, but most US states allow you to request they delete sensitive information like your contact details or social security number.
You’ll have to contact your county clerk’s office directly with these requests.
Step 11: Optimize your phone settings and restrict permissions
Next, you’ll want to adjust your phone settings. Though there are many options when it comes to phone privacy settings, the most important ones are location tracking and app permissions. The exact locations for these settings will vary according to the operating system and device, however,
For most androids, you will be able to access the location settings through the Privacy and safety section of your settings menu. The app permissions can be found in the Application manager.
For iOS, the location services can be found in the Privacy section of your settings, while app permissions can be adjusted individually through each app.
TIP: Turn off Bluetooth when you’re not using it, as many tech companies like Google can locate your device when it connects to nearby devices or Bluetooth beacons.
Step 12: Optimize smart device privacy settings
Devices such as smart TVs and speakers are also collecting your personal information.
Many televisions use automated content recognition for targeted advertising by tracking what you watch. You can disable this feature through your TV privacy settings menu.
Even devices as inconspicuous as speakers pose a threat to your privacy. In some cases. The audio recorded by these devices can be reviewed by contractors. Even worse, hackers can use your speakers to eavesdrop on you.
You can avoid these privacy issues by adjusting the privacy settings on most of these devices. You can find the instructions for two of the most popular smart speakers below:
- Alexa – Adjust the privacy settings here.
- Google Home – Go to the Account tab on your phone app, select “My Activity” and delete all recordings. You can also enable the automatic deletion of future recordings.
TIP: Always mute your smart speaker when you aren’t using it.
Step 13: Clean up or delete your email accounts
Many people underestimate email accounts’ impact on their online privacy and security. Recent statistics show that emails are responsible for 92% of malware attacks. Many companies also use technologies such as invisible image pixels to track your online activities and collect data.
To minimize the risks associated with email use, you should first deactivate any old and unused email accounts. You’ll want to stick with providers such as Google or Outlook that use encryption to protect your data. We also recommend you try high-security email providers such as ProtonMail, StartMail, or Mailbox.org.
For email accounts that you want to keep, there are several things you can do to stay safe:
- Always sign out from devices that don’t belong to you.
- Use two-factor authentication.
- Try not to use public networks while using your email.
- Set up separate email accounts and use unique passwords for different things like online shopping, banking, or account management for other sites and apps.
- Never send sensitive information by email.
- Adjust the privacy settings to opt out of email scanning and disable images to avoid pixel tracking.
Step 14: Optimize browser privacy settings and clear browsing history
The last step to removing your personal information from the internet is to optimize the privacy settings on your browser and clear your browsing history. Browsers store a ton of data, including passwords, cached files, and records of the websites you visit. This can be dangerous if hackers gain access to your device.
We’ve already talked a lot about cookies, but they are one of the biggest tools websites use to track your online activity and gather your personal information. Making sure you eliminate or minimize the number of cookies on your browser will stop a lot of your data from being leaked right at the source.
Thankfully, it’s pretty simple and easy to control this. Just go to the browser settings and disable cookies. More and more browsers like Firefox and Safari automatically block third-party cookies as a default. We also recommend adding browser extensions like ad-blockers for added security.
Once you have done this, go to the history tab on your browser and clear history, cookies, and cached images and files. Make sure to do this regularly to keep the browser from accumulating more data.
Don’t stop your data removal journey
We know there were a lot of steps in our guide, but if you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You have greatly reduced your digital footprint!
Online privacy and security require a never-ending effort so many of the steps on our list should be revisited regularly. While it does take time and dedication, we believe your safety and privacy are always worth it.