How To Remove Your Personal Information From Online Databases

Today, there are numerous databases and search engines being filled with our personal data, and more people are using online tools to do background checks on their neighbors, business associates and potential employees. Here are some tips for removing personal information from online databases:

Removing Personal Information From Search Engines

If you search on someone’s name, you’ll find a surprising amount of personal information about them on Google and other search engines. Removing this information is often quite difficult. Most requests to have pages removed from search engines will go unheeded, except in very special circumstances. For more information, see this article about Removing Your Personal Information From Google. Generally, search companies will tell you to take it up with the websites hosting the pages in question — they recommend submitting an email or letter to the website hosting the content. Indeed, this often the easiest route — I’ve had success with this approach myself.

If you have a lot of money to spare, a company called Reputation will attempt to obliterate any unwanted search engine results about you. They do this by pushing more flattering search results about you to the top of the results page. Their services don’t come cheap however — their prices are around $3000 to $5000 per year!

Since removing information is so difficult, it’s best not to allow your information to reach search engines in the first place. Here’s a guide to stopping your personal information leaking into search engines and other databases.

Removing Personal Information From Background Check Websites

There are companies called “Background Check Websites” that make a business out of gathering people’s personal information from public records and market companies, and then reselling it in a convenient package. They collect public records like real estate transactions, arrest records, court cases, marriages, divorces, etc. Before the Internet, investigators would have to go to the local town hall or the state records office and request this public information in person. Now anyone can obtain this information for as little as $3.95 (from Spokeo).

The major players in background checks are listed below:

There’s a more extensive list maintained by the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

You can check out your own records by going to these sites and entering your name, age and state of residence. To pull up the actual record, you’ll have to pay them a fee.

If you wish to remove your information from these sites, it will requires time and patience. Each site has a different procedure. For some, you can delete your record by just filling out an online form, other sites require you to make a telephone call, or mail or fax in forms and copies of your driver’s license. See this handy guide to get your started.

If you prefer, you can pay a company like Safe Shepard or Abine to do the grunt work for you. Safe Shepard has a free service that removes records from services that don’t require a fax or snail mail request. A premium service, which performs more thorough records removal and includes a personal customer service representative, costs $14 per month. Abine offers a service called DeleteMe that “removes your private data from 50+ of the largest websites that collect and sell your data”. The service costs $99.

Is it annoying to have to shell out cash or spend days filling out forms to get your information deleted? Yes! And even when you delete all these records, the public records will still exist in government databases — you are just making the information more difficult to obtain.

Deleting Online Accounts

I recommend that you delete any accounts with online companies that have poor privacy records. At the top of this list would be Google and Facebook accounts. See also this latest report on Google’s privacy violations, for example. You can get help deleting account on the Account Killer website, or you can check out this guide: Permanently Deleting Accounts on Popular Websites. For a list of alternative services that maintain your privacy see my article How To Control Your Online Data.

How To Control Your Data Online

We’ve become accustomed to online companies hosting our data, but this practice is actually highly inefficient. This page explains the situation pretty simply.

My advice is to use “unhosted” online services that support personal data control, or “zero-knowledge” services that encrypt your data before it leaves your computer. I’ve created a list of suitable services at the end of this article.

Let’s take a look at the problems with hosted data:

Your data can be sold, consolidated and stored indefinitely

If you have accounts on popular websites like Facebook, Google and Flickr — you do not control own your data — you usually have to agree an extensive Terms Of Service, where you give all data rights to the company involved. Often this data is shared, and once your data goes “into the wild” it becomes available for anyone to use or store indefinitely. This is not optimal.

Your account can be deleted or suspended without notice

Most online companies have “Terms of Service” agreements that often include the right for the company to terminate your account at any time without cause. For example, there’s the case of Mirco Wilhelm, whose 4000 linked Flickr photos were deleted when the service accidentally flagged him for copyright infringement. Or read the story of Dylan, whose seven years of Google activity vanished when the system “perceived a violation.”

Your photos, posts and files can be censored

Most online companies have detailed Acceptable Use Policies, that restrict your online activities, often leading to outright censorship. For example, the recent story about Twitter censoring a journalist for criticizing NBC.

Hackers often gain access to hosted data and passwords

Your data can also potentially be hacked. You’ve probably seen numerous incidents of major sites being hacked in news headlines, for example: Linked-In and iCloud.

It’s difficult or impossible to move your data a new service provider

Online companies usually don’t make it easy to extract your data from their systems — it’s not in their interest to do so. Here’s a guide to Permanently Deleting Accounts on Popular Websites.

Those are the problems with having a company host your data. However, there is another way.

Listed below is my recipe for making your online life private and unhosted. Many of these steps will require significant effort on your part, to make transitions. Personally, I made these changes slowly over a number of months.

How To Achieve Private, Unhosted Data

For a search engine, use StartPage or DuckDuckGo because they do not track your searches. I like StartPage by Ixquick because they incorporate search results from Google. StartPage removes all identifying information from your query and submits it anonymously to Google. DuckDuckGo is another good search engine with a focus on privacy. Like StartPage, DuckDuckGo and does not record user information — see their privacy policy for the details.

Instead of using Twitter and Facebook, you can use or Friendica or Movim. These are open-source social networking platforms that allow you to retain control of your data.

Instead of Flickr, you can use OpenPhoto. Instead of using Dropbox, you can use SpiderOak or Wuala or ownCloud or Symform — these services encrypt your data before it leaves your computer.

There’s really no unhosted version of YouTube, you may wish to use a non-Google alternative like Vimeo. You can share videos privately amongst your friends using a private cloud service like Symform. If you happen to have you own server, you can use Joomla with the HWDTube plugin.

For email, you can a use a browser-based email service like CounterMail, which operates like Gmail, but it provides full email encryption and runs on diskless servers. Countermail costs $60 per year. Lavabit is similar service it doesn’t offer quite as many security features, but Lavabit offers free accounts and their paid accounts are only $8 per year. Alternatively, you can use the open-source Thunderbird with Enigmail and GnuPG, and connect to your mail server using SSL. If you are technically inclined, you can even host your own email server. Zimbra and Sendmail are free and open-source email servers.

CrashPlan is a “set it and forget it” backup application that encrypts your data before it to goes into the cloud. It is also the easiest and most reliable way to back your computer I’ve come across. See my article on backups for more information.

You can switch to the open-source Linux operating system. Both Windows and Mac OS X limit your control when using your computer, and both systems have proprietary code that is not accessible to you. You can read about the problems with Windows, Mac OS X and the iPhone.

I recommend using Mint Linux (KDE Edition) because it’s easy to use and doesn’t require complex installations to get started.

You can use Firefox as your web browser in combination with a password manager such as Lastpass & Yubikey. Additionally, use these Firefox add-ons to enhance your privacy: HTTPS-Everywhere, Ghostery, Ad Block Plus and Cookie Whitelist. When you need extra web browsing privacy, use the Tor Browser or Tails. See my article, An Introduction to Privacy Tools, for more information.

For instant messaging, use Pidgin or Adium (with Jabber). These are open-source applications that support encrypted messages.

Instead of Skype (which was recently bought by Microsoft and has eavesdropping capabilities) look into these projects: GNU Telephony, EmpathyEkiga or Red Phone.

Deluge and uTorrent are torrent clients that support encrypted transfers. To be anonymous you must still use a VPN (like Private Internet Access). Open VPN is a good VPN server can run on your own server. Alternatively, you can use a private file sharing application like Retroshare or OneSwarm.

Banshee is a good open-source iTunes alternative. VLC is an excellent open-source video player. XBMC and Plex are excellent media center applications. Libre Office is an open-source alternative to MS Office. GIMP or GIMPShop and Inkscape are good replacements for Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Serious photographers should also check out the excellent digiKam, for photo management.

Calibre is an e-reader that supports numerous e-book formats. It converts and sends your e-books to your e-reading devices.

On mobile devices, the Firefox OS promises to be the most open operating system. Until then, Android is the your best choice.

On Android, these apps support privacy: Orbot, OrWeb, GibberbotObscuraCam, TextSecure, K-9 and APG, CSipSimple.

On iOS, these apps support privacy: Wickr, Atomic Web Browser, Chat Secure, Onion Browser.

You may wish to switch to these alternative ISP: Freedom Pop, Karma, Open Garden, Calyx Institute, TruConnect, republic wireless, Ting and Clear.

That’s my entire recipe so far — if you know of better options, please let me know in the comments.

See also these lists: the Freedombox list, the Libre Projects list, the Open Source God list (on Mashable), the Free and Open Source Software list (on Wikipedia) and the Free Culture List (on Reddit).

A lot of services  I mentioned could be improved by using true client-side data hosting. The Unhosted group, is trying to develop browser-based apps with no server-side backend. Unlike server-side or client-server apps, unhosted web apps leave users in control of their valuable user data and privacy, by default.”