How to Delete 99 Percent of Your Digital Footprint
These are the steps you can take to erase your activity from the Internet's long memory.
You can do it… but should you?
It is possible to make yourself “disappear” from the Internet, says Porch.com security expert Robert Siciliano. But, he warns in an informative post, there isn’t an undo option for many of these tactics. Once you delete emails from a long-abandoned account, for example, they are never coming back.
Sue Scheff, author of Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, also encourages you to think twice about erasing yourself from the Internet, as human-resource departments and college-admissions offices often use social media to review candidates. “If someone goes off-grid, this can be held against them. Companies will believe they either have an alias or maybe they aren’t that tech-savvy,” she explains. “For students, their admission spot could go to someone who has an online presence that showcases their attributes.”
But if you are sure that you want to stop the Googles and Facebooks of the world from knowing everything you’ve searched for and purchased online, or if you’ve had bad experiences with identity theft and cybercrime, these are some steps you can take to erase nearly your entire digital footprint.
Make sure you are removed entirely from data-broker services
“Like credit-reporting agencies, these brokers never seek our permission or approval to collect our personal information, yet they do while also profiting from it. There are firms out there specializing in brand management (notably, Delete Me) that will charge for annual ‘protection plans’ and guarantee removal of one’s personal data from such data-broker services.” —Armond Çağlar, principal consultant with Liberty Advisor Group.
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Delete old email accounts
“Deleting old email accounts requires an accurate username and password to first get into the account. However, not everyone remembers their email password to an account they used ten years ago. For this reason, you have to reach out to the email service provider to request credentials to the account. Some email service providers like MSN or Yahoo will automatically delete email accounts if they are not used over a set amount of time. Otherwise, you’ll have to manually get into the account to delete it permanently.” —Jeff Romero, co-founder of Octiv Digital.
Here are the alarming things a hacker can do when they have your email address.
Delete those old accounts even if you don’t want to erase yourself from the Internet
“Email accounts are a treasure trove for sensitive personal data, and they may provide the ability for hackers to reset passwords on third-party services that users have completely forgotten about. This could grant them access to those services and give them the ability to access further information, which could later be used to launch phishing campaigns to extract further information from those victims.” —Jo O’Reilly, Deputy Editor at ProPrivacy.com.
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No more apps
“We love free apps, but we have to remember downloading these applications is still a transaction where we are agreeing to give these companies our personal data, such as online habits and location information in the exchange. Once that information is out there, it is gone and even likely sold to other companies.” —Çağlar.
Learn how to recognize the signs you’re about to fall for an online scam.
Use privacy-protected platforms
“After deleting old accounts, if you want to continue flying under the radar, I would recommend using a platform like the Brave Browser for general Web surfing and use search engines like Duck Duck Go whenever possible. Both of these platforms are built on protecting privacy.” —Alexander Kehoe, co-founder and Operations Director of Caveni SEO Solutions
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Find all the apps and sites you’ve logged into
Shayne Sherman, CEO of TechLoris, offers these steps to find the myriad apps and sites you’ve signed up for over the years:
- Search for your most commonly used usernames. You know you have one that you lean toward. Google it. You’d be surprised what may come up.
- Search your email for those “Welcome to [whatever site name here]” emails. They always want you to confirm your email address, so this will be a good way to flush them out.
- Check your saved log-ins. Chrome, Firefox, and Explorer all offer to save your log-in information. Just because you forget you’ve logged in to something doesn’t mean they have. You can check your settings to find these.
- Check your connected apps. It may seem like a great convenience when you see those little “Log in with Facebook” or “Use Your Google Account” buttons, but those make it really easy to put your information out there. Luckily, if you’ve connected something to these accounts, there is a list of connected apps within your profile at each of these sites that you can use to track down those apps.
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“The only way to really prevent unauthorized personal data from appearing online would require a fundamental lifestyle change—one that few can afford to make in a highly connected world. This would mean the possibility of sacrificing such modern conveniences as participating in e-commerce and utilizing online bill payments.” —Çağlar.
If you use any of these bad passwords, change your settings immediately.
Delete your social media accounts
“You’ll have to log in to all social media profiles to permanently remove them. All of the major networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok claim to erase your information as soon as the account is deleted. While we may not know if this is true, the best thing we (consumers of these platforms) can do is to delete the accounts and be sure there are no other active accounts. Once deleted, the information may take a few weeks before it’s removed from Google search results.” —Romero.
Here’s how Facebook is stalking you—and how to make it stop.
Establish boundaries in your Web browser
“Begin by deleting all cookies and cached information from every Web browser you use. This will essentially perform a reset for the browser. Next, use the browser’s cookie settings to let websites know you do not want to be tracked. This may lead to functionality on some websites not working, but it will ensure you are not tracked.” —Romero.
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Manage your location settings on your cell phone
“Today, many of the apps we use will ask for access to your location or contacts in your phone before allowing you to use the app. Yelp, for example, will ask for your location to source nearby restaurant selections; however, Yelp will continue to track your location so long as it is being allowed. One way to prevent this is by switching from ‘Always Allow’ to ‘While Using the App.'” —Muneeb Ali, CEO of Blockstack.
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Beware of Facebook single sign-ins
“Facebook has made it easier than ever to use the Internet and has conveniently set up ‘Log in with Facebook’ on other applications. If you have ever used this feature in lieu of creating an account, the information collected and stored on those sites is fed into Facebook. Considering that Facebook faces data breaches regularly, this means that your personal data may be leaked from more than one website. It is important to segregate these accounts and create unique passwords in order to make it harder for your personal information to be leaked.” —Ali.
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Unsubscribe to newsletters and sales alerts
“Do you have online accounts with shopping services or magazines such as Amazon, the Washington Post, or eBay? Maybe you left reviews? Be sure to not only close your online accounts but also unsubscribe from all mailings—not just for these sites but from all other shopping or online publications you were receiving.” —Scheff.
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Use the Wayback Machine
“Check the [digital archive] Wayback Machine for your online history. I actually did this, and when I saw dated and erroneous information, I emailed them to kindly remove it. You can connect at [email protected]. They were prompt to respond—and complied.” —Scheff.
Discover the things your smartphone knows about you.
Use ad blockers
“This will stop you from signing up for promotions, newsletters, and phishing schemes where they gather your details and can use them against you.” —Scott Krieger, Web developer and cybersecurity expert.
Here’s how how to tell if your technology is spying on you.
Use a VPN
“While clearing your local Web-browsing history will ensure that nobody can look on your machine to see what you have been searching for (the same is true of searching using Google Incognito mode or Firefox Private Browsing mode), this will not stop your ISP from retaining a record of those Web visits. In order to access the Internet, everybody’s Web traffic must pass through their Internet Service Provider’s servers. This allows the ISP to know exactly what websites you have visited. Thus, deleting your Web history locally does not stop your ISP from having the entire list of Web-browsing habits. And depending on where you live, the ISP may be collecting that Web-browsing history and all your digital communications’ metadata in order to hand it to government authorities.
“Thus, in order to actually ensure that your online privacy is maintained, it is vital to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) at all times. A VPN encrypts all the data coming and going from your devices so that it is scrambled as it passes through the ISP servers. This completely removes the ability of the ISP to know which websites you are visiting.” —O’Reilly.
Using a VPN is also one of the secrets of people who never get hacked.
Be smart about cybersecurity
“People should run anti-virus and other software to ensure their laptops, tablets, and mobile phones have not been hacked (especially in the event of a breach). They should also take measures to change their passwords across their email, financial, and social media accounts—and that they are using passwords which are extremely difficult with a variety of letters, numbers, and special characters. They should also keep a close watch on their financial accounts and credit, and consider putting a block on credit requests or inbound requests for credit.” —Paul Lipman, CEO of consumer cybersecurity company BullGuard.
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Look for “Account Settings” pages
“Get to know the Account Settings sections for major providers like Google and Apple. Here, you can delete entire search histories, stored private data, and any associated email accounts. Tread lightly, though, as these actions will be permanent and have potentially undesirable consequences. Deleting your entire email history and account could make it more difficult to communicate with family and friends. Deleting search histories could make it more cumbersome to do future Internet searches. The same goes for the major social media networks, though steps here might be a little more convoluted. Most major sites will give you the option to download this information before deleting, so you can keep any details you need here on your personal computer.” —Lisa Plaggemier, Chief Strategist at MediaPRO.
Next, check out these 20 cybersecurity secrets hackers don’t want you to know.