How to clean your digital footprint and protect your privacy

We live in a world where almost everyone's personal information is accessible, which is not always very reassuring.

Faced with the questionable data collection policies of Facebook and Google and Australia's horrific new encryption laws, now is the best time to clean your data online.

We believe that free services - such as Instagram, Gmail, Google Docs, and WhatsApp, for example - actually come at a significant cost: your personal data.

Although you easily said "I have nothing to hide", that is not the point. The right to privacy is a fundamental right. Nothing to hide doesn't mean that you don't have the right to hide.

We put curtains on our windows so that inquisitive neighbours cannot watch us. Even though everyone usually goes to the bathroom, you close the bathroom door when you enter it. The importance of online privacy should be put on par with our privacy in the real world.

Companies deliberately prevent you from erasing your data from their services, but with some time and effort, you can control a fair amount of your personal information that is on the Internet.

Here are some tips for cleaning up your online data and improving your privacy.

Delete or deactivate online accounts

Take some time to think about all of your shopping, entertainment, and social media sites you've signed up to. Large sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and Iconic are easy to remember, but you can't remember all the accounts you have created.

To delete most accounts, you'll need to go to your account settings and look for an option to deactivate, cancel, or delete it. Most of the time, it's not easy to find because they don't want you to leave.

If you think this is really difficult to do, do a quick internet search for "website + delete", you can usually find instructions. There are also services like "DeleteMe" and "DeseatMe" that will help you find and delete your accounts online.

Directly remove information from individual websites

Whether it's an old tweet, a posting image on MySpace, or a Facebook photo of your 21st birthday, most of us have put questionable content on the Internet. It could even be a Reddit comment or a steaming IGN message board about snow in Skyrim.

The most comprehensive way to remove unwanted messages and information is to go directly to the source and delete them. In some cases, the account provider does not allow you to erase information, but to change it. In this case, just write some nonsense to get around it and erase the original content.

If you have written something on a website that you cannot control, you can contact the webmaster directly. Usually, you can do this in the “About Us” or “Contact” section of the site, but you can look for contacts at www . whois. com.

Remember that owners and operators of private websites are not required to remove your content. While they are probably happy to help, be sure to use polite phrases like "please" and "thank you".

Remove information from data collection sites

Believe it or not, there are companies that specialize in collecting and storing your information.

Data brokers like Spokeo, PeopleFinder, and countless other people collect data on every activity done online and sell it to people with great offers, and this is used primarily for targeted advertising.

You can search these individual websites (there are thousands of them) yourself and delete your name and data one by one. But the number is too high and the process is different for each site. Sometimes you even have to send manual files. The formalities in 2018 are really horrible.

The best way is to use "DeleteMe" again. For $129 per year, they will do it all for you.

Submit a legal request to have search results removed

If someone posts sensitive information that you want to delete, such as your bank account information or phone number, but they refuse to delete it, you can send a direct request to Google to have that information deleted.

Also, you can go to Google to update or delete web pages. For example, if you have a blog post that you can't delete, or if you post it on a website that you don't want to be associated with, that page will show up when people see your name on Google, even if it has been updated.

This is where the Google URL removal tool comes in very handy. Submit the obsolete URL and Google will ensure that this address is no longer associated with your name. Like most data erasure operations, this is not guaranteed, but it is the best way to do it.

Delete an e-mail account

Nothing better than a fresh start. If you're like me, you'll probably have about thirteen email addresses set up for Netflix free trials, ten for forgetting your Apple ID, and one or two that you set up in elementary school.

Log in to each account you can remember and delete them. If you are currently using multiple email addresses, remember to send an email to your contacts and tell them that you will only be using one primary account.

Ideally, you might want to set up a new email that doesn't use Gmail, as the service allows Google to read your emails and send that message to advertisers. ProtonMail is an excellent free email provider that offers a private and encrypted email experience to its users.

Remember, deleting data online is a time-consuming process. Rome was not built in a day, and your privacy cannot be restored in a day. It is important to keep in mind that some things will be impossible to delete.

Privacy advice

There are a lot of guides to help you set up online privacy, but they're not always practical.

I know, for example, that Google has questionable privacy policies, but I accept it because I'm dependent on the ecosystem. I don't use Docs or Photos, but I have to use Gmail and Google's search engine. You will need to make a similar decision on your own privacy. 

Now that you've cleaned up your online data, here are some tips to make sure you're maximizing your privacy in the future.

  • Don't use WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger: Use open-source encrypted messaging apps like Signal or Telegram.
  • You don't have to be an online hacker to use a VPN - everyone should have one. Mullvad and NordVPN are two of the best.
  • As mentioned earlier in this article, delete unnecessary accounts and think carefully about creating new accounts.
  • Do not use emails from Google, Yahoo or Microsoft: use encrypted email services such as Protonmail and Disroot.
  • Ideally, use Mozilla Firefox or Brave as your web browser, anything will be much better than Chrome anyway.
  • Use privacy additions with your browser, including HTTPS Everywhere, Self Destructing Cookies, Ghostery, and Privacy Badger.
  • Avoid the use of social media at all costs: you are actually giving data to businesses for free.
  • Do not use a simple password, never use the same password for each website. KeePass or 1Password is a great password manager.

If you would like to learn more about best privacy practices online, I suggest you check out Glenn Greenwald's 2014 TED Talk, "Why Privacy Matters", and read "Hiding on the Internet From Michael Bazzel, former CIA investigator of cybercrimes.

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