How to unsubscribe from the internet

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With so much personal data circulating publicly on the internet, consumers have a legitimate interest in controlling the flow of information. Some are taking matters into their own hands, opting out of certain data collection websites or using paid removal services to scrub on their behalf.

Whether to do so, and which option you choose, largely depends on the extent of your privacy concerns, how much time and energy, if any, you’re willing to spend, and how much you’re willing to pay for privacy protection purposes.

“How much does it bother you that your phone number is out there and people know you’re married?” said Stephen B. Wicker, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University.

Here’s what you need to know about removing or restricting your personal data from the Internet:

Identity theft and your online journey

At issue is data collected by dozens of online companies called data brokers, which aggregate consumers’ personal information, often selling it to other organizations. This data can include a person’s name, mailing address, birthday, names of relatives, social media, property value, occupation, and other nuggets that can be exploited for various scams.

“For identity theft purposes, it’s like tiles in a jigsaw puzzle. The more tiles you have, the more accurate the representation can be,” said Adam K. Levin, consumer affairs advocate and former director of the Consumer Division of the New Jersey co-hosting a cybersecurity podcast.

Not everyone is so concerned about their personal data being publicly available, but there are legitimate reasons why some people may be more sensitive. This includes those who have experienced or are concerned about harassment or stalking and people who work in law enforcement or high-profile corporate jobs, said Damon McCoy, an associate professor at NYU TandonSchool of Engineering.

Self-help tools to remove personal information

For those so inclined, there are ways to limit the amount of personal information available on the Internet. Many people search websites like Spokeo, MyLife.com, and Radaris, for example, have processes in place for consumers to request removal from their database.

Additionally, Google recently launched a new “Results About You” tool that allows consumers to request the removal of search results that contain their personal phone number, home address, or email address. While removing these results doesn’t wipe a person’s contact information off the web, it’s a step Alphabet has taken to mitigate the misuse of personal information.

You can also ask Google to remove certain links to other information found in a Google Search. If possible, start by contacting the website owner and requesting that the content be removed. If that fails, Google says it may remove personal information “that creates significant risks of identity theft, financial fraud, or other specific harm.” This could include non-consensual explicit or intimate personal images, unintentional fake pornography, and images of minors.

Downsides of the do-it-yourself data management approach

The downside of the do-it-yourself approach is that it requires real-time effort and ongoing maintenance to ensure the data doesn’t reappear. “You can do it yourself, it’s just a time-consuming exercise because you have to go to individual websites and follow the rules on how to remove yourself from websites,” said Rahul Telang, an information systems professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Also, you may need to repeat the process because sometimes the information can reappear, which means it’s not a one-time effort. It’s a bit like “unsubscribing” from a mailing list, wrote Mike Kiser, director of strategy and standards at identity security firm SailPoint, in the email comments.

“You can click ‘unsubscribe’, but it’s very difficult to verify that the data has been wiped off their end and they haven’t already resold it to some other entity, which makes wiping private information that much more challenging.” Kiser noted.

Pay a subscription to clean up websites

For some people, the time and energy they would have to spend removing personal information from various sites is simply too extensive, so they’d rather pay for a service that can do it for them and provide regular progress updates. There are a handful of these services, including DeleteMe, Kanary, and OneRep by Abine Inc.

Costs can vary, often from $7 to $25 a month, depending on the provider and whether it’s an individual or family plan, Kiser said. Annual pricing is often available as well.

For example, one of the options DeleteMe offers is $129 per year for one person. Kanary offers a free version of its service and a paid version that costs $105 a year for one person and $150 for a family plan, which covers one individual and two loved ones. OneRep offers a plan at $99.96 a year for one user and $180 a year for six people.

It can be difficult to gauge the effectiveness of these services, in part because there is so much personal information in the public domain. Kanary, in the FAQ section of his website, claims a removal success rate of over 70% for each user. For its part, OneRep says it deleted 5 million records in 2021. The DeleteMe website says that an average of 2,389 personal information is found in a two-year subscription.

Before signing up for a paid service, be sure to carefully compare vendor offerings, including price, what’s included, and how often the service reports its progress to customers. You might also see if a free trial is available. Additionally, if you’re using a credit monitoring service, it might also be worth asking if a data removal feature is included, Levin said.

You could also see if your company pays for the service, since some employers offer it as a perk to high-level employees, McCoy said.

US privacy laws are even weaker than in Europe

Basically, it’s impossible to remove every bit of online information tied to your name. Some types of information, such as public records, are publicly available and may be searchable online, for example. Also, some sites, especially those hosted outside the United States, do not offer an opt-out process. Also, the data you can remove is much more limited in the US than in Europe, where privacy laws are stricter, Wicker said.

“The reality is, once you’re out there, you’re out there. You can delete information, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still out there,” Levin said. That’s why he advises consumers to carry out ongoing privacy checks by googling and/or working with a paid vendor who monitors these things on their behalf. “You have to continue to be vigilant,” he said.

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