Erasing Your Digital Tracks on the Web

The Internet never forgets. Search engines crawl and index every last byte of information available on the Web; and once a piece of information goes online, some digital echo of it is virtually guaranteed to persist on a server somewhere.

We visit sites and create profiles throughout the Internet, often at sites that we don't even like and have no intention of ever visiting again. As if that's not enough, all kinds of data and details of our lives are in the public domain--cataloged, indexed, and only a quick Google search away.

User Agreements and Privacy Statements

Luckily for you, Websites and virtually every company and government agency in the world have user agreements and privacy statements that explain exactly what the business or entity may and may not do with your sensitive, private details.

Illustration: Jeffrey Pelo
Almost half a billion people are members of Facebook, and you may very well be one of them. But have you read the Facebook Privacy Policy? If you're like most people, the answer is no, in which case you may be only vaguely (or not at all) aware of what that policy's mind-numbing text says with regard to the myriad ways that Facebook may share your information with other parties.

A lot of information is simply public domain--name, address, home value, criminal record, and more. Data that lies in the public domain was available before the advent of the Internet and the Web, but these technologies have made it exponentially easier to find. An answer that would have taken hours of manual sifting through documents to find now takes a Google search only seconds to produce.

Most Websites are up-front with users regarding their privacy and data-handling policies, but most users never take the time to read those policies and accept the sites' terms and conditions without a second thought. No wonder people seem surprised when they learn that their data is out in the open for all to see.

Skeletons in Your Internet Closet

Have you ever googled yourself--that is, run a search for your own name on Google or any other search engine to see what information the Web has on the subject of you? Sites such as WhitePages.com, BeenVerified.com, and PublicRecords.com are all in the business of providing basic background checks based on the volumes of publicly available data stored online. A quick search for your name on WhitePages.com can reveal your home address, your home phone number, your age--within a certain range--and the names of other people who live in your home or are related to you.

Who Owns Your Data?

The fundamental question--according to Linda Criddle, president of the Safe Internet Alliance--is, who owns your information? "We have to get the mindset to change, to say that consumers own their information. Whatever I choose to share with a given Website is granted under stewardship, but I can rescind that access at my discretion," Criddle says.

But even if that mindset existed today, the trick would still be how to successfully rescind access to data that has been shared and transmitted around the globe to social networking contacts, partner sites, and the general public.

You can't completely erase your digital identity, but you can take steps to clean it up and to assert your right to protect your privacy. The first thing you should do is to keep track of the various sites and profiles you have created on the Internet and to remove any you are no longer using.

Subscribe to the The Advisor Newsletter

Comments