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How to delete your personal information online

Wednesday, 19 February, 2020

It’s hard not to leave behind digital footprints as you roam the internet.

From stored login credentials and website cookies to social media posts and long-forgotten user profiles, it’s often surprising what comes up when you Google your name.

Of course, the very act of searching for yourself online creates more footprints – like trying to stop ripples in a pond by throwing a pebble at them.

And while it’s easy to leave digital fingerprints all over the internet, it’s not as easy to delete your personal information online.

Online brands often provide free content and services in exchange for Personally Identifiable Information (PII), typically including your email address and personal preferences.

And information floating around cyberspace probably only exists because you put it there – commenting on news stories, or long-forgotten dating profiles loaded with selfies.

Strangers (or people you know) might be viewing this data at any time, for any reason.

Happily, there are some practical steps you can take if you’d like to delete your personal information online…

Research

Do your research through a private browser. Rather than throwing more pebbles into the pond, investigate yourself anonymously using either Tor or a VPN.

Our sister site VPNs.co.uk can help with the latter, while Tor is a free, privacy-oriented web browser compatible with all modern devices (and also capable of accessing the Dark Web).

Use different search engines. Google has the longest arms, but DuckDuckGo may return Dark Web results when used via the Tor browser.

It’s surprising how different the results for your name (or pseudonyms/online handles) may be when you type a term in quotation marks into Google, then Bing and then Yahoo.

Don’t just search on one device. It’s impossible to identify every website you’ve ever visited, but different devices will reveal specific sites and services you’ve used.

Look through documents and photo folders to see if anything triggers a memory of an account you once had, or a website you used to contribute to. If it’s still live, it’s time to…

Take action

Delete online profiles. Because every website has its own structure, this tends to involve emailing the webmaster and requesting account closure or deletion.

Permanent deletion is different from deactivation or suspension, where PII and historic data remains stored on remote servers. Insist on the former, especially with social media sites.

Speak to search engines. Google has a number of privacy services available, and its Remove URLs tool can eradicate content on websites you own.

You can legally request search engines (not just Google) remove data from their results, thus preventing other people from seeing it. However, it’s a slow and unreliable process.

Close old or dormant account profiles. Search through your bookmarks on every device, rack your brain for old email and social media accounts, and close them all.

Email is particularly crucial. Many people have set up email accounts with firms like AOL or Mail.com for specific purposes, before forgetting about them – yet they’re often still active.

Search online for ways to close an account. Use a search engine to find results for “How to delete [website name] profile”.

This may link to Reddit threads, consumer guides like this one, or other online resources explaining how to permanently delete profiles if you can’t do so yourself.

Ask for help from experts. If you’re struggling to get digital data erased, privacy protection agencies like DeleteMe can remove PII – at a significant cost.

As well as vanquishing historic information, these firms may conduct periodic checks to ensure previously deleted data remains banished.

Going forwards

Having gone to all this effort, it’s crucial not to scatter breadcrumb trails behind you in future.

Don’t log into websites, reject cookie policies unless you’re a regular visitor, and avoid commenting on news stories or discussion forums.

Most importantly, stay away from social media.

Platforms like Facebook are only able to provide their services for free because they harvest and resell swathes of PII to anyone willing to pay for it.

Staying away from social media represents the ultimate privacy policy.

Neil Cumins author picture

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Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!

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