Erasing Your Digital Tracks on the Web

Your Facebook and Google Data

Zuckerberg
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has questioned the reasonableness of expecting to have your privacy preserved on the Internet.
If you don't approve of the way Facebook manages or protects your data, you can delete your Facebook account. However, Facebook's privacy policy explains that even if you take this action, various data footprints will remain. According to Facebook's privacy policy, third-party providers with whom you have shared information are authorized to retain that information according to the terms of the agreement with Facebook.

Google Dashboard enables you to see and edit--or remove--personal information on Google sites and services.
You do have some control, though. Tools like the Google Dashboard enable you to see and edit--or remove--information about you that various Google sites and services may be storing. The Google Dashboard provides links that jump you to the right places to manage the privacy settings at different services--and your presence on each one.

Google provides links and resources that you can use to remove a page or site from Google search results, to remove specific content, or to report copyright infringement. Google also points out, however, that whatever content or Website page you want removed must also be removed from the Web or blocked from future indexing; otherwise, it will just end up back in Google's database.

Your Data at Public Records Sites

WhitePages.com provides a link that you can click to edit the information it reports about you. In order to do so, however, you must first register with WhitePages.com. You can authenticate with WhitePages.com by using your Yahoo, Google, or WindowsLive ID profiles. It makes sense on some level: WhitePages.com needs to have some way of authenticating that you are who you say you are before allowing you to modify the information.

When you remove your entry, WhitePages.com warns that the data may not disappear right away (though it should within 24 hours), and it offers this additional note similar to Google's: "We take steps to block the re-publication of listing information once it has been removed. However, we continually publish new information from publicly available sources and third-party data suppliers."

Erase Your Tweets

If you have posted tweets on Twitter that you'd rather not leave as a deathless gift to posterity on the Internet, you'll be relieved to know that the site permits you to delete offending tweets--albeit one at a time. If you have lots of unwanted tweets to deal with, you might be tempted to abandon the offending Twitter account and start fresh with a new one, but in that case the tweets would remain where you left them. Another option is to use a tool such as TwitWipe to wipe away your entire tweet history, while retaining your same Twitter account, authentication information, and third-party app connections.

Conducting a Privacy Audit

The best way to start reducing online exposure of information about you is to run a background check on yourself. See what Google or WhitePages.com or BeenVerified.com have to say about you. Once you've done that, you should begin taking steps to clean up incorrect information or lingering skeletons.

If possible, locate the original source of the information--the site or service where your personal data first appeared--and remove it there, rather hopscotching through the numerous sites that may simply be reposting it. Either correct inaccurate information associated with your name (and with the various profiles you have on the Web) or simply delete those profiles entirely.

If you run into resistance when trying to deal with these sites, you can turn to organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chilling Effects for assistance. To prevent your information from being exposed on the Internet in the first place, use tools like the InPrivate browsing feature of Internet Explorer 8, or resort to proxy services such as Anonymizer or Hide My Ass to shield your personal data.

Tony Bradley is co-author of Unified Communications for Dummies. He tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW. You can follow him on his Facebook page, or contact him by e-mail at tony_bradley@pcworld.com.

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