I tried to delete myself from the Internet. Here’s what I learned

SocialProof Security CEO Rachel Tobac uses social engineering to hack CNN tech reporter Donie O'Sullivan's accounts.

MyLife gathers large amounts of public data to create basic reports and “reputation scores” on millions of people in the United States, all available to those willing to pay for a monthly subscription. On this, I found a quantity of information sometimes inaccurate but disturbing about my life: my birthday and my hometown; my old post (but curiously not my current one); a list of people Seth has relationships with, including the names of my two parents, each linked to their own profile pages with even more data. All this in one place to discover.

When I called the site, a customer service representative pointed out that the information was not from MyLife, but rather from “interwebs”. After a few round trips, the representative agreed to delete my profile page. I felt victorious – until two hours later, when I received the first of many promotional emails from the company, one encouraging me to sign up, another talking about the increase in my score credit.

As I would learn through my brief manic campaign in December to clean up as much of my personal data as possible and start the New Year with a clean digital slate, it’s hard not to feel like you’re just scratching the surface of a incredibly large industrial data complex. At the end of my experience, I felt even worse about my ability to regain control of my data than at the beginning.

Our data are available. Now what?

In recent years it has become a truism in some tech savvy Twitter feeds that much of our personal information is already available somewhere thanks to an ever growing list of hacks.

Banks, retailers, social media – both popular and deceased – all of them revealed massive data breaches. In 2017 alone, Verizon ((VZ) confirmed that every Yahoo account – the 3 billion of them – had been affected by a massive breach and Equifax ((EFX) revealed that violation had potentially exposed the names, social security numbers, dates of birth, addresses and credit card numbers of nearly half of the United States.
There are only two viable emotional reactions to a total collapse of privacy: denial or helplessness. After trying the first for a while, I turned to the second, prompted, as for so many moments in my life, to listen to a late sobering podcast about a hack. I followed the usual measures recommended in informational cybersecurity stories – implementing two-factor authentication; register for a password management application; freeze credit reports indefinitely – all with the overwhelming feeling that none of these steps have eliminated that personal information floating around in a dark corner of the web.
As a cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier recently put to one of my colleagues: “So my password has been stolen, can I go see all the criminals on the planet, their computers and delete my name? No.”

But there must be something more to do, I thought. The fact is that the Internet is already full of information that could be used against us, most of which is collected by entirely legal means. Maiden names of mothers. Birthdays. Home addresses. Maybe I couldn’t stop my favorite stores from being hacked, or talk nicely to a group of hackers afterwards, but I could make it a little more difficult for a bad actor to find my personal information online – and in doing so regain some control over my data and my life.

How To Delete Your Personal Information Online

Deciding to delete your information online is the easiest part. The hard part is knowing where to start.

For many, the obvious answer would be to focus on consumer services such as Facebook ((FB) and Google ((GOOGL)where we voluntarily – if not always consciously – transmit data about us on a daily basis. Tech industry veteran Praveenkumar Venkatesan has decided to launch DeleteMyData at the end of 2018 to help people do just that.

By offering a quick and easy guide to removing a range of popular services. Venkatesan hopes to “simplify” the process of cleaning our data. As he told CNN companies, “it is so easy” for people to collect their data, but much more difficult “for them to get out”. About 40,000 people come to the site each month, he said. For comparison, Facebook has four platforms with more than one billion users each.

But as a technical journalist, I was not looking to completely remove the social networks and services I rely on regularly to work on (although over the years I have changed my privacy settings for a lot and reported back private). Instead, using a few online resources, including guides to a cybercrime expert and Reputation advocate, an online reputation management service, I settled on a short list of lesser-known databases that would be among the most important aggregators of personal information.

These include data brokers, who buy and sell our personal data, as well as “people finder” services like Spokeo and Radaris and background check platforms like Infotracer and MyLife. These may not be household names, but these sites know a great deal about many households. You could turn to these services if you were looking for information on a new neighbor, employee, customer or, according to Spokeo CEO Harrison Tang, “long lost family members or friends.” You can also come across a link to these sites when you search for yourself on Google, if you are into that sort of thing.

“Different people have different feelings about privacy,” said Tang. In his story, the pressing problem is not so much the collection of data as the need for greater transparency on how and why. “I don’t think consumers should be surprised.”

Unlike data breaches that draw much more attention to exposing our personal information, that data is legally aggregated. Spokeo, which says it makes sales of about $ 70 million a year, mostly to daily users as well as some corporate customers, including law enforcement, extracts data from dating sites, social networks, criminal records and “marketing databases” of retailers, said Tang.

Jenna Raymond, COO of Accucom Corporation, an information services company that considers Infotracer as one of its brands, told CNN Business in December that criminal records are also a “great” source of data for these sites. , with ownership records. “The minute you buy a house is public information,” she said.

“You can withdraw from Infotracer,” she said, “but he’s still there.”

A whack-a-mole game

Within days, I pulled out of Infotracer – and many others.

Some, including Infotracer and Spokeo, I was able to delete almost immediately; others said it could take up to 72 hours before the information is extracted. A number of services have requested new data in order to clean up the old one, ranging from a phone number to confirm the deletion to the email address requested by MyLife and then spammed me.

On Radaris, before I could retire, I had to click on a page with instructions on how to “control your information,” which lists more than a dozen “premium data providers that aggregate, host, and distribute personal and business information,” including Facebook, Google, Equifax, and … the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Then I saw a page listing dozens of other data brokers and websites.

Representatives for Radaris and MyLife did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The USPTO did not immediately respond to questions.

“Unfortunately, there is no centralized service to remove your information from all resources with a single request,” according to the Radaris page.

By the time I finally took control of my Radaris page, I felt more lost than before.

“I believe information is power,” said Raymond, echoing a slogan of his business. On this point at least, we agreed: information is power, and consumers – myself included – have given too much of ours.


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