There are plenty of reasons for an undo-and-destroy button when posting content online. An unfortunate post could get downloaded or screen captured within seconds, taking it out of your hands and leaving it for others to control forever. But what if:
- You didn’t update or authorize the content?
- The person purporting to be you isn’t really you?
- You don’t know the companies tracking you online and they don’t have your consent?
Your personal data or digital footprint is larger than you realize. According to a 2023 article by Comparitech, some big tech companies may hold enough data to create a paper file as large as a skyscraper. That’s like a 1.5-million-word document on each person.
Personal data management can get overwhelming. Most people don’t read the terms and conditions they’ve agreed to when checking the “Accept all cookies” or the “I Agree” box.
Do you agree?
Companies can access, publish or share your data with your permission, even if you don’t realize you gave it. Other types of data are collected from public records, like court cases or house sales. When you combine the ways personal data can be accessed and disseminated, it’s easy to see how that file on you can fill a skyscraper.
Data brokers collect, cluster (aggregate) and sell consumer data points. Some are not interested in how your data is used, only how much money they can charge for it. As with many things related to internet privacy, data brokering is an unregulated industry. Brokers collect things like:
- Internet browsing histories
- Online purchases
- Public records (including court information)
- Location data
- Loyalty programs
- Subscription information
Data brokers may scrub data for accuracy, analyze and classify it, and repackage it to sell to third parties.
Third parties that use this information include:
- Targeted marketing and sales firms
- Credit reporting firms
- Background check companies
- Government information and statistical reports
- Risk mitigation and fraud detection systems
- People search databases
- Banks and financial institutions
- Insurance companies
- Ancestry research services
- Political campaigns and voter targeting
As artificial intelligence makes its way into everyday business use, it will also make data aggregation easier. But will its aggregation methodology be responsible and ethical?
Consumer protections and how your information is used
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau launched an inquiry into the data brokering industry in 2023. Its main objective was to see what information data brokers are collecting and how, and if they’re playing by similar rules. It’s unclear whether the Fair Credit Reporting Act applies since data brokers’ data may or may not be used by employers, insurance and financial companies, and creditors.
Some states, like Vermont, have passed laws to provide some oversight of data brokers. But sweeping legal changes may be far away.
Where your data goes
Your data might get auctioned to marketing and advertising companies vying for a top position in your search return lineup. Or it might get purchased or stolen by criminals for nefarious uses. According to the latest Federal Trade Commission data, Americans reported losing $8.8 billion in financial scams in 2022. That’s $2.6 billion more than 2021.
The information in your digital footprint can help banks decide about your credit. Or on the flip side, it can help cybercriminals create a more convincing scam tailored to you.
Cybercrimes and data misuse
Regular people can use your data against you, too. Laws regarding personal privacy and cybercrimes are still being developed, so cybercrime can be frustrating for victims.
- Cyberstalking — Monitoring, tracking, intimidating or controlling you online
- Deepfakes — Videos designed to look and sound like you with the intent to do reputational harm (e.g., revenge porn)
- Doxxing — Publicly publishing personal information like your home address or medical records
- Identity fraud — Using your personal information and identity for malicious activities
Big data and online tracking
Big data companies track your habits and preferences to create a granular individual marketing profile. Mobile applications, connected vehicles, devices, GPS, social media activity and internet browsing history are a fraction of the datasets that can be used as part of their interconnected marketing (and remarketing) strategy.
First-party cookies are unique identifiers put on your device to track things like your preferences, settings or shopping cart items. These can make your shopping or banking service easier. First-party cookies are usually the cookies your web browser needs to interact with websites.
Third-party cookies are unique identifiers placed on your device that follow you all over the internet. Big data companies track your moves throughout the internet when they find your identifying cookie on a website they monitor. (They usually monitor multiple sites.)
You can block third-party cookies. Don’t click “Accept all” when you visit a website. Many browsers will alert you to this option.
While data collection isn’t initially malicious, how someone uses your data isn’t up to you once it’s out there. But just because it’s out there doesn’t mean it has to stay out there.
Where to begin a request for data removal
Decades of internet use and the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 4.0 have fueled the cry for more content control, especially related to personal and brand identity.
It’s difficult to remove data from the internet and some data may remain out of your control. But there are some best practices and ways to monitor your privacy:
|Website link||What you can find there|
|Apple product privacy control||Ways to manage data across Apple products:
|Google product privacy guide||Ways to manage data across Google products:
|Federal Trade Commission (consumers)||Information on:
|Federal Trade Commission (children)||Information on protecting children’s privacy:
|Federal Trade Commission (businesses)||Information on privacy and security protections related to businesses, including:
Outside help to tame your digital footprint
For data that’s already out there, you might want to enlist outside help to reduce your digital footprint. When you’re researching companies to delete your digital footprint, consider:
- The number of data broker sites they monitor for your information (the more, the better)
- The frequency at which they scan data broker sites for the appearance — and reappearance — of your information (the more often, the better)
- The cost of the service (Some offer family plans.)
- The data opt-out service they use (automated, manual or a combination)
- Value for the cost (Does the service achieve your data privacy goals?)
- Free trial period to verify their service (The trial service they give you may be priced higher than the one you’re considering, so evaluate the features you’re willing to pay for.)
Stay cybersafe and take advantage of your devices’ built-in privacy controls.