7 steps to cleaning up your online presence

André Lameiras, Security Writer at ESET explains that you may not be able to disappear completely from the internet, but you can minimize your digital footprint with a few simple steps.

Have you ever searched for yourself on Google? It may sound odd, but it is actually a great way to discover a tiny part of what the web knows about us. And, most importantly, it is the only way we have to know if we need to ask Google to remove relevant personal information that should not be shared publicly.

In April 2022, Google added new options for removing your personally identifiable information from its search engine, including government ID numbers or pictures, banking details, contacts, personal information, and specific data such as medical records. Naturally, Google will not remove personal details included in news articles or public record databases.

The feature adds to the previously existing option to request the erasure of content from search that could be used for any kind of harm, such as non-consented pornographic content, images of minors, or copyright violations.

For European Union residents, Google was already complying with Article 17 of the General Data Protection Regulation, the Right to Erasure, which directs all companies in the EU to remove personal data of individuals upon request. The same principle applies to California’s Privacy Law and states with similar regulations.

So how can you try to delete yourself from the internet?
Once something is online, there is no absolute way to get it removed. But there are a few things you can do to clean up your online presence:

  1. Google yourself. First you need to know as much as the internet knows about you. Search for your name, check the results on the first five pages and combine the name search with your phone number or home address to see what pops up.
  2. Check the privacy settings of the services you use. Some platforms, like Facebook or Twitter, have an option on their privacy settings that allow you to protect your content and contacts from showing up on search engines.
  3. Contact the website owner. If you want to remove a specific mention on another website, make sure to request it from the website owner. Most websites make their contact information available under “Contact Us”.
  4. Delete what is unnecessary. A lot of us overshare! If you are concerned about what the whole wide world knows about you – and you should be – start by deleting old Facebook posts, tweets, pictures from when you were 17 or any other cringe. And if you know privacy is important for you, it is likewise important for friends and family, so delete any pictures in which they appear alongside you.
  5. Ask Google and Bing to remove your personal information. Now, after doing some self-cleanup, use the new tool made available by Google to remove personal information from its search results. So far, Bing allows only the removal of non-consensual imagery or broken links and outdated content. If you are an EU resident, use Google’s Right to Be Forgotten form and Bing’s Request to Block Search.
  6. Think before sharing. So now that you’ve gone through all this hassle, it is time to plan for the future. Your virtual life keeps going; perhaps you still want to be on Instagram, LinkedIn, or any other social media platform and that’s fine. But go the extra mile, review your privacy preferences choose wisely who can see your posts and avoid sharing unnecessary content that you might later regret.
  7. Use a VPN. This extra layer of protection will make sure your connection is encrypted and your location masked. Above all, this will help prevent hackers from sticking their noses into your personal information.

If you do this, does it mean you have full control of your data?
There is no simple answer. Most likely not. But it also depends on the type of user you are. If you’re concerned about your privacy and have a limited social media presence, it is likely you can delete most of your digital footprint.

On the contrary, if your data is more or less everywhere, the goal above is very unlikely. Your friends have certainly published pictures of you on their feeds, and you’ve lost count of how many times you used your email address and phone number to log in to various websites and apps, not to mention all the data concerning your online activity that those services sell to third parties – with your consent.

But don’t be discouraged. There’s a good chance that you still have time to limit what people or companies can check about you. This is extremely important, not just for general privacy, but also to avoid harm that might come from exposing your religious, political, or personal convictions in the public space.