My friend Drew has written a fantastic guide to removing personal information from the internet. For several years this guide appeared on on a website that he recently took down. Rather than lose some of the extremely valuable work Drew created and gave to the community, he asked me to republish some of it here. I am only too happy to do so. This article is the first of some select works from HidingFromTheInternet.com.
When a person starts out on the quest to remove as much personal information about themselves that they find online, the effort usually begins with a “shotgun approach”. You begin searching Google to identify links to websites that display your information. Hopefully you’ll also search Bing and other search engines in the same manner, and use targeted search techniques and operators to pinpoint your information quickly. I have previously discussed many useful techniques for pinpointing your searches and saving a great deal of time while learning some basic online research techniques (article coming soon).
The shotgun approach to information removal progresses to identifying specific people search websites that display personal information, some are indexed by search engines and some may not be. It is important to check them all and search yourself thoroughly and often.
For years, I bounced from search engine, to database, back and forth while hunting my personal information. For someone who is just starting out on this endeavor, I believe there is a more organized and time-saving way to approach the removal process. Below I will describe an overview of how I approach this project. The links may change over time, but the methodology will likely save you a great deal of time and enable you to accomplish more of your effort more quickly. The following list is also not all inclusive. It represents a calculated approach, targeting specific websites, in a specific order to help streamline your removal efforts. A more comprehensive list is constantly maintained at the following link and should also become referenced as you find yourself getting deeper into this project.
The following is my strategic work-flow for information removal. Once complete, it will likely represent about 80% of what a person can accomplish on their own, in a short period of time. The time savings over a “shotgun approach” is tremendous, leaving more time for you to spend on some of the harder to accomplish removal efforts with major data-brokers (article coming soon) if you choose to take this a step further.
PHASE 0 (Preparation): Online Research, set up email account for removal collection.
In Phase 0, you will create an email account that is used as a collection point for all of your removal efforts with the companies you will communicate with. Not every company or website needs to communicate via email with you, but having an email for that specific purpose if helpful for tracking your progress and keeping this effort separate from other emails you use. I recommend using GMX.com or Mail.com as a collection point email address. Choose a username that is logically similar to your real name so that the email address looks legitimate (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Also in Phase 0 you will spend a lot of time using internet search techniques to research your level of online exposure. Compile a list of links where you find your information and refer back to it as you remove information and identify areas you may have missed.
PHASE 1: Mail Control, and select opt-outs
The links in Phase 1 deal with ways to remove yourself from a great deal of marketing and mailing lists. There are also links to a couple websites that usually take 7-10 days to complete your opt-out request, so you should complete those first and let time take care of them while you work through other more immediate removal options. Completing the mail control links also takes time (several months) to solidify so I prefer to get these out of the way at the start of any removal project.
PHASE 2: (NO Identification required)
The links in Phase 2 are removals that DO NOT require you to submit any form of identification. Each link has a slightly different method for obtaining the removal, but they can be worked through quickly if you have your collection email account established. These can literally be done in a matter of hours in most cases. As links change I will attempt to update them, and also you can refer to the IntelTechniques comprehensive document I already mentioned above as well.
PHASE 3: (Identification required)
The links in Phase 3 will likely all require you to submit a redacted copy of your identification. You may also need to attach identification to a professionally worded email or letter to these companies to obtain removals. These links require a bit more time, thought, and possibly some follow up to be sure they have been granted. Current links and email addresses are included below.
- https://www.melissadata.com/lookups/personatorsearch.asp (email@example.com)
- http://www.mylife.com/privacy-policy/ (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com)
- https://pipl.com/help/remove/ (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- http://www.people-finders.ws/privacy.aspx?popup=true (email@example.com)
- BlockShopper (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Rehold (email@example.com)
- https://www.checkpeople.com/opt-out (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PHASE 4: Confirm all previous removals, OSINT, Google removals, final cleanup
During Phase 4 of of your removal project you will spend time accessing the work you already accomplished. Do more online research on yourself to find websites you may have missed or that were not included in this article. Refer to the complete workbook to identify other, smaller websites that may still be revealing your information. Rinse, lather, repeat. Below are links to the Google and Bing removal tools if you want to submit outdated URL’s to search engines who may still display results from pages you already removed.
In my experience, Phase 0 through 4 represent a careful, and calculated approach to an information removal project. Following these steps makes the process logical and organized and is also easily tractable. A person could complete all phases in a matter of days, and then spend their remaining time on links they identify that were not included here. More time and effort could also be spent obtaining some of the more advanced opt-outs with high end data-brokers as well. My goal for this was to save you time, and provide a strategic approach to information removal efforts. All the best to you and I hope you find this helpful.
Image attribution: featured image courtesy of Judith E. Bell, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jhandbell/15274840188