“My take is, privacy is precious. I think privacy is the last true luxury. To be able to live your life as you choose without having everyone comment on it or know about,” said spy novelist Valerie Plame. Defending your privacy in the era of the Internet, social media, and shared data is not easy. And it requires true determination.
Depending on how active you have been in your online life, limiting the exposure of your data may be relatively easy or extremely difficult. In both cases, personal data collection and tracking practices performed by all digital conglomerates will get in the way of winning your privacy back. Furthermore, if your information has been shared on the Dark Web for one reason or another, you may even need the help of law enforcement.
The challenges of attempting to erase yourself from the Internet
There are indeed challenges in completing the task. So, with having all the “buts” in mind, it is more realistic to aim at minimizing your online exposure rather than fully removing your data (because the latter is an illusion).
Keep in mind that limiting your exposure on the Internet (as in deleting all of your social media accounts) may be considered ambiguous by others.
If a Human Resources expert, for example, cannot find anything about you online during a regular online check, you may never be invited to a job interview again. Not having a single social media account or any easily discoverable information about yourself is considered very fishy by recruiters, be sure of that! So, in that sense it may be better for you tо revise your publicly available information and limit whatever bothers you.
That remark aside, your intention of controlling your privacy is praiseworthy, but it requires determination and may be quite time-consuming. Not to mention that if something is posted online it will be there forever, or at least – for a very long, long time.
Are you familiar with the “Streisand effect”?
The Streisand effect
Apparently, in 2003, Barbara Streisand attempted to prevent photographs of her home from being published online.
However, this step that was intended to protect her privacy drew more attention to the photographs. It also incited people to copy and re-post the photos multiple times. The most ridiculous thing in that case is that even the Wikipedia article dedicated to the so-called “Streisand effect” includes the very same photograph of her home that she wanted private. Locating and deleting all the re-posted photos seems rather impossible, as countless copies have been made during the years.
The fact that you’re not Barbra Streisand doesn’t mean that what you’re posting online is not being copied. After all, you are a user of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google and/ or some other service, and these sites are mirrored regularly. Search engines like Google, for example, tend to keep local, cached copies in case the particular site goes offline.
The right to be forgotten… or not
Talking about Google, in September the search giant renewed a battle against the EU’s “right to be forgotten” legislation. The European Court of Justice is to rule whether this right should be extended beyond the borders of the European Union.
In the EU, citizens are allowed to request the removal of information from the Google search engine, Blogger and other related products owned by the corporation.
Did you know that in April this year, a man won a milestone case that forced Google to remove search results in relation to a previous, spent conviction. Google had previously declined to remove the results and the man took Google to court in the UK. The court ruled in favor of the individual and required Google to accept the search engine link removal request. But that’s the UK, and the victory of one man against one tech company.
We should be generally very careful with the stuff we share online, especially with very personal or controversial content. Even if you delete it from the corresponding account, there is no guarantee that it won’t come back to haunt you at some point in your life. The chance that someone copied it shouldn’t be underestimated. Just think of the Streisand effect.
The passive data collection
No matter what we decide to do with our online selves, we should always keep an eye on our digital information and how we’re being tracked. Passive data collection is not as openly discussed as the other types of data gathering practices but it is happening. And it’s happening to all of us.
So, you should definitely start paying attention to the passive data collection that companies perform. But what is passive data? In short, it is the type of data that is collected from you without you being notified about it. It is sometimes called “implicit data”. And in many cases, it involves the use of mobile devices.
To explain further, passive data collection is the gathering of consumer data through their behavior and interaction without actively notifying or asking the consumer’s permission. The truth is that most consumers don’t even realize how much data is actually being captured, nor how it’s being used or shared.
Passive data is collected via other methods that don’t include asking for your permission. Here are some examples of passive data:
- Your browser.
- Your default language.
- The Facebook unique user ID that Facebook sends during a conversation on Messenger.
- Your device type (mobile or desktop).
Passive data collection is a very important part of mobile market research. More and more people, or consumers in the eyes of marketers, own mobile devices, and smartphone penetration is increasing in key global markets.
The technology also provides some unique opportunities in data capture, both directly from the respondent and through passive data collection. This can result however in significant ethical and data privacy concerns, explains Zenith Media.
So, passive data collection is indeed concerning for the individual who is looking for ways to win back his privacy. Add to that all the corporations, marketing entities, governments and their institutions, and malicious hackers that collect our information for their analysis and God knows what other reasons…and the privacy circuit becomes even more complicated!
What can you do to control your online exposure?
You can start by running checks using the Wayback Machine and the Have I Been Pwned website.
The Internet Archive
Heard of the Internet Archive? It is a San Francisco–based nonprofit digital library that provides free public access to collections of digitized materials, including websites, applications, videos, moving images, and nearly three million public-domain books. In other words, the archive keeps copies of all public websites with the idea to preserve digital history. Even though it was initially created for scholars, the Archive also known as the Wayback Machine, now contains 25 petabytes of data!
Personal information that has been publicly available is included in the archive, even from websites and services that are now shut down.
This means that all the information you have shared publicly about can be located in the archive. You can use the advanced search option, and you can also contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org to request the removal of your information.
Have I Been Pwned?
Have I Been Pwned is a project started by security expert Troy Hunt. The website allows online users to check if their personal data has been compromised by a data breach. To perform these checks, the service collects and analyzes hundreds of database dumps and pastes the information about billions of leaked accounts. Users are also given the option to search for their own information by typing their usernames or email addresses. The website also allows you to sign up to be notified if your email address has been compromised.
If you are serious about your privacy, you should definitely run a check on the Have I been Pwned? website, and see if any of your accounts have been breached.
A short list of the more serious actions needed for your online near-death experience
Start with social media. Yes, this is quite expected and quite inevitable as well. Your social media accounts contain a lot of personal data, which is exploited in ways we cannot begin to imagine. The sad thing is deleting social media accounts is easily said than done, as the process of dealing with every single account is time-consuming and different for each case. And the more accounts you’ve registered, the more work you’ve got to do. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, to name a few. Prior to deleting your accounts, you may want to back them up.
1. Back up your data as per the service.
2. Read the Terms of Service to get an idea of how information is handled and deleted. Keep in mind that the service may be required to keep certain data due to legal retention requirements.
3. Monitor your deleted accounts to make sure all information has been permanently removed.
4. Delete the email accounts you have used to register for the services.
Continue with all other accounts you’ve ever created. This will take time and requires your sober thinking. It is a great idea to sit down, take a deep breath, clear your head… and make a list. Include shopping accounts and any other online tool you have used. The deletion of some of the accounts may require you to contact the service provider, or to verify your identity. Be specific and professional in what you say.
After you’ve deleted your accounts, you may want to double check if you still appear in search results. If that is the case, the search engine may be displaying its own cache. What you can do is run the Remove outdated content page of Google. You can also use Bing’s tool called Bing Content Removal Tool.
If you’re thinking of using an online removal site such as DeleteMe or Deseat.me, think again. As pointed out by privacy professional Victoria McIntosh, these services are often expensive and cannot be entirely trusted. You may even need to subscribe for the service to get updated if any of your information resurfaces online.
Ironically enough, deletion sites also require your personal information, so you may be entering a vicious circle.
But the irony doesn’t end here.
You may have succeeded to delete your accounts but in fact you’ve only deleted your copy of your data. Remember the Streisand effect once again. Your data has many copies, and you’ve only deleted the one that you were in charge of. This may be indeed the copy you needed to disappear from the Internet, but it is very likely not the only one and you shouldn’t forget that. There may be also no way for you to get access to the rest of the copies, because there are not yours to take. Funny, isn’t it?
Some really useful tips that will improve your online privacy
After you’ve finished with cleaning up your digital past, it is time to resurrect your online presence but in a very thoughtful and subtle way.
Use a VPN. Because you need one. The VPN service can help you in many ways.
Now, picture the following concept – your data is a car and the VPN software is a tunnel that is wrapped around the car. Your car is protected by a direct attack, such as a storm, falling objects, or even drones trying to shoot your car, if you have a wilder imagination. But within the tunnel, there are other cars and objects that can disrupt your safe travels. In addition, the tunnel might break apart, leak and so forth. a VPN can secure you from third parties gaining access to your data, but only if they do not keep logs and have a legitimate DNS leak protection. So, you need to choose carefully. You needa secure VPN service.
Once you’ve selected a VPN, you need to set it up, and this is how:
- Register for a VPN service of your choice, that will serve your personal needs. Keep in mind that a paid VPN service is the best option, as free VPNs can leak your information to hackers.
- Clear all cookies in your web browsers and disk drives. Delete any browser extensions you consider suspicious. For maximum effectiveness, the recommendation is to simply Clear All Browsing Data such as history, cookies, passwords, autofill forms, cache and everything else that accompanies it, from the settings menu.
- Check the VPN’s settings such as DNS Leak Protection and IPv6 Leak Protection are enabled. Also, check which encryption method you want to use and which security protocol.
- Launch the VPN server and connect to a location of your choice that is outside the country you reside in. Then, just wait for the server to connect. You will be notified when the service has assigned your new location and IP address, after you have connected.
You should also revise all the browsers and applications you’re using and check how good or bad their reputation regarding privacy is. In addition to setting up a VPN service, you can see if the Tor browser is a good fit for you.
Privacy is indeed a luxury, and it requires a lot of attention, doesn’t it? Be prepared to give it, or privacy may bite you in the ass. I hope I won’t regret saying that in the future.