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Protecting your online identity: Strategies for limiting public access to your personal information

While compromised credit cards and social security numbers are taken seriously by everyone, one shouldn’t understate the risk of any other personal information landing in the public view. While this is usually expected primarily of public figures, ordinary people deserve to live private lives as well. However, thanks to data brokers and people search websites, privacy can’t be guaranteed to everyone.

Below, you’ll learn more about the risks of public access to personal information, how to remove data from people search sites, and the ways you can protect your online privacy.

Risks of public access to personal information

There is an entire market for people who want to know your name, religion, marital status, address, and everything in between. This market is powered by companies known as data brokers. These companies sell your personal information to third parties who need it for advertising.

Or… that’s what they tell you. The reality is that many data brokers don’t know where this information actually goes. Nor do they care.

In some scenarios, cybercriminals can retrieve data from data brokers, either via a data breach or via direct access. Even if the data brokers who have your information don’t end up leaking it to cybercriminals, your information might still be misused. Anyone can purchase your personal details via people search sites. This could include a vengeful ex-lover or potential employer. The point is that such easy public access to your information puts in numerous risks from stalking to identity theft.

Removing data from people search sites

Though operating within the law, people search sites are often called a huge violation of privacy. Thankfully, these companies are required to have a process that lets you opt out and you can erase your info from People Finders, Spokeo, Whitepages, and other sites. While the process might differ slightly, here’s a step-by-step guide to what you can do:

1. Locate the opt-out form

Many of these sites have an easy-to-find opt-out form, usually linked to on the profile page or website footer. This form allows you to remove yourself from their existing database and data collection list. Think of it like a “do not call” list for collecting information on you.

2. Monitor the web pages

After you opt yourself out of the site, it can take them a few weeks to respond. During and after this time, you’ll want to add the website to a monitoring list. From there, check back time after time to be sure they’ve removed the information you’ve requested.

If they haven’t removed the information or haven’t responded to your message, move on to step three.

3. Send legal notice

Data brokerage sites are notorious for not responding. So, in some cases, you’ll need to retrieve a legal notice. This legal notice is produced by a lawyer and sent to the data brokerage company on your behalf. This is to inform them that if the site doesn’t remove your information, you’ll sue them to force them into it.

Often, the letter will be enough to remove the data. However, sending it legally is tricky (and sometimes impossible) if the website is overseas. In this case, you have the last resort.

4. Remove the link from Google

Google has a form to request that search engine results be removed. However, you need to have a proper reason to make this request. Typically, this reason should be connected to your safety or privacy. However, if the page is considered of high public interest, Google might ignore your request. This is when that legal notice from step three is handy again.

However, removing your information from people search sites once is not enough to guarantee your privacy. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So, here are some tips to help you avoid the exposure of your personal information in the future.

Limiting online visibility and preventing identity theft

If you want to prevent your private data from being collected and reappearing on data broker sites, you need to reduce your online visibility. This means making yourself (or specific information about you) hard to find.

To do this, you often need to start by reviewing your online accounts. This includes not only social media platforms but any site where you have a public profile.

Sites like Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and Instagram usually set you up to have some sort of public view by default. Any amount of public view gives data brokers an idea of your life, which allows them to collect information on you across various platforms and put it together into one profile.

In extreme cases, this public profile can lead to identity theft. Even if you have a strong password and only your name, date of birth, and city on your social profiles, this is enough for some cybercriminals to hack more details or even break into your accounts. Criminals can call your local bank and use social engineering to fool bank employees into pretending to be you, gathering more information and eventually getting access to your financial accounts.

Thus, it's extremely important to be mindful of the information we share online and to take steps to protect our data.

Maintaining privacy and control over your digital footprint

Beyond keeping your private information hidden, you must also take extra precautions to protect your online activity. The whole history of what you do online is also known as your digital footprint. With enough tracking, cybercriminals and data brokers can get a good idea of who you are based on that footprint.

With this in mind, here are some tips to help control this information flow:

  • Browse privately: Using browsers like Brave or Tor can help you stay private in your online activities and prevent them from being tracked. Note that incognito mode isn’t enough, as it will only delete your browsing history.
  • Use a private search engine: DuckDuckGo and similar search engines won’t gather information on your search history and the pages you end up on.
  • Consider using a VPN: A virtual private network will hide your location data and make it more difficult for criminals to intercept your communications.
  • Stick to secure sites: Sites with the “lock” before the URL (or HTTPS sites) are encrypted, meaning they secure communications between you and the site.
  • Secure your mobile devices: All of the tips above should also apply to what you do on your smartphone and other devices you frequently use.

Taking a holistic approach to protecting your online identity includes taking care of your digital footprint and private information. By following the tips in this article, you’ll stay safe online.


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