Have you ever Googled yourself? We all know that a pile of information about us exists online, but it never really becomes clear until you put your name or online handle into a search engine. Looking for something a little freakier? Try a Google image search.
A digital footprint is an inevitable side-effect of your life online — pretty much everything you do online is stored somewhere. The trail that makes up your digital footprint consists of data that you’ve willingly put online; data about you that someone else has put online; data not available online that you’ve created; and data not available online that has been created about you. This last type of offline data has been referred to as a digital shadow, rather than footprint, as you don’t necessarily create it directly and it’s pretty much unavoidable. Your digital shadow can include medical records, travel itineraries, browsing history, security camera footage, bank records, info taken from smartphone apps and so on.
This information often stays siloed on the server that it’s created on, but will likely be used (or made available to third parties) for the nefarious task of marketing. And just because this information isn’t available on the internet, doesn’t mean that it isn’t at risk of public exposure — look at the Anonymous hack on the PlayStation Network in 2011 for a high-profile example that involved the collection and distribution of 77 million accounts, including email addresses and hashed words. Unfortunately, you have very little (if any) control over the size of your digital shadow and the companies storing this information are rarely held accountable if it’s breached.
Your smartphone is just as guilty. It’s common practice for many iOS apps (and probably Android apps, although they require permission at install) to upload your entire address book to their servers, meaning you can almost guarantee that your name, email address and/or phone number are sitting on a server somewhere, thanks to a friend installing a very dodgy app on their phone. VentureBeat has a story on the practice that’s worth reading.
There’s clearly a heap of information available about you, both online and off, but why should we be fearful? A big concern is identity theft, where someone can gain enough information to convince, say, a financial institution that they’re you and then get up to no good. Even though it’s usually phishing scams or data breaches of private servers that are responsible for this, you should still be aware that the small, seemingly disparate, pieces of information scattered around the net can be joined together to form a fairly comprehensive picture of your life.
Feeling suitably paranoid? Now is probably a good time to start thinking about the information that you do have control over.
An embarrassing past
Beyond identity theft, there are some genuine reasons to want to cover up your digital footprints, especially if they represent a part of your rebellious, naive youth that you no longer agree with. For example, you may be starting a new career as a public figure or even going on a blind date.
We’re presuming you’ve already Googled your name in quotes and found something that you’re not too happy about. If it was beyond the first two pages of results, it’s probably pretty safe from most eyes, but if not, or if you don’t want to take the risk of there being someone determined to find some dirt, you’ll want to take some action.
Unfortunately for you, you can’t remove results from Google (or other search engines) directly. All you can do is make them less relevant and eventually, they’ll drop off into the oblivion that lies beyond page 5. The best way to do this is to remove the source page; in this case, they’ll probably drop out of Google results completely.
The first port of call should be to remove any content that you own. That means shutting down and deleting those old, angst-ridden LiveJournal (or other) accounts gathering dust in that obscure part of the web.
Additionally, you can untag yourself from any unsavoury images on Facebook or request the person remove the photo completely. This is a simple task (although it’s up to the discretion of the photo uploader), achieved by opening the photo in question and clicking on ‘Options > Report > ‘I want to untag myself’ or ‘I want this photo removed from Facebook’.
Other web sites can be tricky — if it’s a (erroneous, I’m sure) bad review of your business or some other negative content created by someone else, it’s rather unlikely that they’ll be willing to remove it. However, if you feel there’s a legitimate reason for its removal, you might as well reach out to the webmaster and politely request its removal.
This isn’t always possible, though, as sometimes you just can’t contact the webmaster or they refuse to take it down. What you can do in this case, and it’s probably a good thing to do anyway, is bury these unwanted posts/photos by heavily promoting those positive parts of your online persona — current social networks like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn carry more Google weight than obsolete ones like MySpace and Beebo. So make sure those accounts are squeaky clean or change the names tied to your existing profiles and start new ones.
Additionally, you can use a service like unlistmy.info to find which sites contain data about you, enabling you to request them to delete it. Unfortunately, it’s US-based, but not entirely irrelevant to us antipodeans. You can also use the people search engine, pipl.com, to see what info about you exists out there — it indexes sites that are often buried by Google, so it’s a good place to find any forgotten social profiles.
An embarrassing past forms only one part of your digital footprint. It’s likely that the majority of your footprint actually exists in the shadow realm, to twist the above terminology; that is, data created about you, not necessarily by you. So, if leaving a trail of personal information across the web leaves you feeling a little uncomfortable, what can you do about it? And just how paranoid should we be?
Paranoia level 1: Trim the fat
You can get an overview of just how much of your information is leaking out online, as well as help on how to plug those holes, by visiting privacyfix.com/start and installing the browser plug-in. The plug-in will not only give you a rather comprehensive overview of your data, but it’ll also block any tracking data across web sites and give you a few tools to help improve your privacy as your browse. However, it’s still up to you to lock down your social networks.
To do this on Facebook, visit ‘Settings > Privacy > Timeline and Tagging’ and set all that you can to ‘Friends’ rather than ‘Friends of Friends’ or ‘Everyone’. Additionally, change the ‘Do you want other search engines to link to your profile?’ to ‘Off’ and limit your past posts.
You should also consider a Facebook alias; this way, people can only find you if they have your email address or you let them know your alias. You can also go one step further and strip out your personal information like education, employment, hometown and more.
Twitter is meant to be public, so maybe reconsider why you have a Twitter profile. If you still want one, though, you can ‘protect’ your tweets, making them visible only to your followers. Do this by visiting ‘Settings’, then scrolling down the ‘Account’ page and checking the ‘Protect my Tweets’ option. Note that previously public tweets will remain on Google or other places online, so don’t expect this to clean up a social mess.
On the dullest of social networks, LinkedIn, visit ‘Settings’ and then on the ‘Profile’ tab down the bottom, click on ‘Edit your public profile’. On the tree on the right, you can select just which sections you’re comfortable with appearing in public search results or make it entirely private. Of course, this will severely limit the chances of you being head hunted, so take that as you will.
As we mentioned earlier, you may want to reduce the amount of personal data that exists about you, if only to limit the risk of that data being exposed by cyber-attacks on servers. This will involve deleting all your old, disused forum, email, social accounts and so on, and then contacting the site and requesting that it delete your personal data.
Make sure that your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles are squeaky clean as they’re most likely to pop up first on a Google results page of your name.
Of course, the very nature of a disused account means that it’s likely lost deep in long-forgotten memories. So, how do you go about systematically deleting your info from these sites?
If you have a long-standing email address or can recall the login details of your old one, the best way to go about this is to search your emails for the terms register or username . It’s not a flawless approach, but it can be quite effective, if time-consuming. Remember, though, that just because you delete/deactivate your account on a site doesn’t mean that your information won’t remain on its servers; to be extra thorough, you should contact the site and request that it remove your info.
If you’re unregistering from a forum, keep in mind that any posts you made will remain online and it’s unlikely that any moderator will be willing to delete them all. As you usually post under a handle, just make sure that that handle isn’t associated with your name on any other web sites and those posts will become moot.
On the services that you continue to use, you should remove your last name from any ‘real name’ fields and consider using different handles/aliases across the different accounts.
Once you’ve done this, you should go about making sure that you’ve swept up all the crumbs from your virtual bed. Undertake another Google search for both your name and any handles that you’ve used — results will still likely appear, so rerun the search again in a few weeks and see if anything new comes up that you don’t want seen. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to periodically Google yourself and react accordingly.
Paranoia level 2: Hoarding your data
The footprints you leave behind as you traverse the digital plains are also monitored by advertising companies, not the least of all being Google. If you want a little more ownership of this data and to keep it from the hands of the marketers, there are also a few additional steps you should take.
To get a pretty good overview of what you can do to stop being tracked, including the settings you should change in your browser and some extensions that you should install, visit fixtracking.com. You should also either disable cookies entirely (which can limit many web sites’ functionality) or set the browser to delete all cookies upon exit (which leaves cookies to be tracked while your browser remains open).
If you’re sick of having to log back in to all your most-visited sites after deleting your cookies and don’t mind keeping some cookies, you can install an add-on that deletes all but a select few, meaning you can leave your site logins intact. One such add-on we recommend for Firefox users is Self-Destructing Cookies by Ove; in Chrome, use Vanilla Cookie Manager by Christian Zangl.
You should bear in mind that deleting cookies will have the side-effect of making advertising on web sites less relevant to you. The argument here is that if you’re going to see ads anyway, wouldn’t you prefer to see relevant ones? Of course, the counter-argument is that you should be running an ad-blocker, anyway. We’re in the latter camp.
Also, if you really feel strongly about your data, you should shut down all your social networking accounts — they exist purely to squeeze some dollars out of your info, after all. Not willing to sacrifice that just yet? Why not take the anarchist’s route and fill in your profile with erroneous data (note that this is a breach of most social networks’ terms, so don’t tell ol’ Zuck).
You should also switch search engines, away from Google or Bing, as they exist to track you and show you ads. Non-tracking alternatives include duckduckgo.com, www.startpage.com, ixquick.com (from the same company as Start Page, but searches using more than just Google’s search engine) or enabling the ‘AskEraser’ on Ask.com.
Paranoia level 3: Become a phantom in the night
If you’ve shut down all your social networks, run your own email server, have disabled cookies completely, but are still looking for complete anonymity, there’s one option worth considering: TOR. Used by frequenters of the seedier parts of the net and privacy enthusiasts alike, TOR (The Onion Router) bounces your http/other requests through a distributed, anonymising network of servers, making it nigh on impossible to track where the request originated. Additionally, it encrypts all of your data (up to the exit of the TOR network, so still use https where possible), so that anyone viewing your packets as they skate across the icy surface of secrecy can’t actually see what they contain.
The easiest way to use the TOR network is to install the TOR Bundle, which includes a privacy-focused modified version of the Firefox browser. It will automatically connect to TOR when opened, as well as delete all your session data when closed. You can get this bundle, ready to install to a USB drive, from www.torproject.org/projects/.
If you feel that this is going a bit too far (if you’re really interested in privacy, we can’t think why), you could alternatively install a VPN like TunnelBear, which will encrypt all your traffic and send it via a server in your country of choice —perfect for accessing country-specific content, like certain American TV shows. Additionally, this is good practice if you ever use an ‘open’ Wi-Fi network, like at most cafés, as it prevents people from being able to view your data over the unencrypted connection. There are tales of cars parked near internet cafés with laptops in the boot that do nothing but log all of the data sent through the café’s wireless network, to be sifted through later for goodies.
Install a VPN like TunnelBear to encrypt all your traffic and send it via a server in your country of choice.
Paranoia level 4: Vanishing completely
Constantly looking over your shoulder through the eye holes in your tinfoil hat? Have you systematically and successfully deleted every internet account you ever signed up for, including hacking into and destroying the relevant pages in the Internet Archive? Been using TOR for years? Perhaps the only thing left for you to do is to buy a cave/Earth ship and leave the grid. Use only wired networks. In fact, go offline completely and only send letters — in code. Don’t buy a smartphone and encrypt all of your phone calls. Don’t cut your fingernails. Store your own urine. Dream of building an all-wooden aircraft five storeys tall… Escape from the world because someone, somewhere, is watching you.
To keep your online data safe from cyber-attacks, we can’t stress enough how important it is to have strong, unique passwords, not found in any dictionary, for each site you log into. Of course, remembering them all is a pain, so use a password manager to keep track of them all. We use the free, open-source KeyPass, as it has clients for just about every platform (including Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, Android and iOS, as well as plug-ins for Chrome and Firefox) and is about as full-featured as they come, including an automatic strong password generator and support for cloud syncing your password database.