How to remove personal information from the internet and protect your privacy

People often choose to remove their personal information from the internet due to privacy(new window) and security concerns. For example, oversharing on social media can expose you to phishing attacks(new window), identity theft(new window), and cyberstalking.

Plus, your data is highly valuable(new window). The more you share online, the more advertisers use that information to target you with ads, which can feel intrusive and manipulative. By taking down your personal details and reducing your digital footprint(new window), you regain control over your online identity(new window).

This article explains how to remove your personally identifiable information(new window) from the internet and secure the data you do keep online.

What kind of personal information can I remove from the internet?

Websites and online services store hundreds or even thousands of data points about you. Some of it is publicly available, and some of it is accessible to those online services (but could be exposed in a breach). Here are some common pieces of information that you might want to keep private: 

  • Contact information like phone number, email address, and residential address
  • Social security number(new window)
  • Financial information like bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and financial records
  • Health information like medical history or health insurance
  • Employment information like your salary or personal work contacts
  • Identification numbers like driver’s license numbers, passport numbers, or government-issued IDs
  • Legal documents like scanned or digital copies of birth certificates, marriage licenses, or court documents
  • Biographical information, such as details about your day-to-day life, family members, relationships, and personal background
  • Private images and videos that contain identifiable information or that you feel uncomfortable having publicly available
  • Internet and network information like your IP address(new window), geolocation data, or information about your internet provider(new window) or browsing habits(new window)

How your online personal information can be misused

While there are benefits to sharing online personal information, they can be easily overshadowed by harmful uses:

  • Targeted ads: Highly targeted advertising campaigns can feel overly intrusive and uncomfortably personal. This can lead to a sense of being constantly watched or monitored online.
  • Identity theft(new window): If cybercriminals access personal details like your social security number, driver’s license, or bank account numbers, they can impersonate you, open credit accounts in your name, or steal your assets.
  • Financial fraud: With enough details, fraudsters can manipulate or directly access your financial accounts, commit fraud, or make unauthorized purchases.
  • Financial profiling and risk scoring: It’s common for lenders to calculate the risk of lending to someone by analyzing their credit score, income, employment history, and debts. But some lenders include data collected from online sources, such as your social media activities and online purchases, which might not accurately reflect your financial reliability.
  • Phishing(new window) and scams: Using your personal details like name, address, and email, scammers(new window) can create convincing phishing emails or messages that appear legitimate, tricking you into revealing sensitive information or downloading malware.
  • Stalking(new window) and harassment: If your home address, daily routines, or other personal information are publicly accessible, they can be used by stalkers or malicious individuals to harass or threaten you.
  • Doxing and social engineering(new window): Your personal information can be used to dox you, a kind of harassment in which someone publicly shares your private details online without your consent. Social engineering exploits personal information and trust to trick you into revealing even more sensitive data.
  • Reputation damage: Information from your past, such as old social media posts, legal issues, or controversial opinions, can be used to damage your public image or professional reputation.
  • Government surveillance: In some cases, personal data collected online can be accessed by government agencies without your consent for surveillance(new window).
  • Opinion manipulation: On a larger scale, aggregated data can be used to influence political choices, as seen in cases of targeted political advertising(new window) based on demographic and psychographic profiles.

How do I remove my personal information from the internet?

Manage your social media accounts

Social media platforms are often the richest sources of personal data. For instance, Facebook receives a staggering amount of data from numerous companies, as highlighted by a Consumer Reports study(new window).

  • Adjust privacy settings: Check the privacy settings on all your social media accounts to control who can see your posts and profile. For example, it’s best to keep your birthday, email address, and phone numbers private. You can also prevent search engines from linking to your profiles.
  • Remove unwanted content: Go through your posts, photos, likes, and account information to delete anything that may be inappropriate, too personal, or outdated.
  • Delete your accounts: The idea of fully disconnecting from social media might seem like a dramatic step, but these profiles are a source of data that can be mined or misused. If you’re very serious about protecting your online privacy, it’s worth considering.

Remove personal data from websites

If you find your information on a website you don’t control, you can:

  • Request opt-outs: If a website offers an opt-out option for data removal, use this feature to formally request your data be deleted.
  • Contact the webmaster: Most websites have contact information, so you can politely request the removal of your personal data.
  • Make legal requests: In some regions, laws like the GDPR(new window) in the European Union or CCPA in California give you the right to request the deletion of your data. Mention these to add weight to your data removal request.
  • Public records sites: Websites that display public records like court records or licenses typically adhere to legal standards, making removal more challenging. However, you can still request removal or anonymization of your data.
  • Send a reminder: Websites might not respond immediately. If you haven’t heard back in a reasonable timeframe (typically a few weeks), send a follow-up email.
  • Request removal from search engine results: You can ask Google(new window) or Bing(new window) to stop showing your personal data in their search results. But you must make this request to each service separately. This doesn’t remove your data from the websites themselves — it just means it won’t appear in search results, so anyone who accesses those websites directly can still see your information.
  • Send a cease and desist letter: As a last resort, your lawyer can send a cease and desist letter to the website owners, especially if the information is defamatory or infringing on your rights.

Deal with data brokers and aggregators

Data brokers collect and sell personal information, making them tricky to deal with:

  • Identify data brokers: Make a list of data brokers such as Equifax, Experian, or CoreLogic, which likely have your information. It’s best to also include smaller or less known companies to be as thorough as possible.
  • Request opt-outs: Visit their websites, find the privacy policy or a specific Data Subject Access Request (DSAR) section, and follow the instructions to opt-out. You might have to fill out forms, specify what information you want removed, and provide your ID for verification.
  • Keep records: Make sure to keep track of all your emails and other communications with data brokers. It will be helpful if you need to contact them again or if any issues come up later.
  • Follow up: Data brokers might not tell you when they’ve removed your information. If you haven’t heard back from them after a few weeks, reach out again.
  • Repeat as necessary: Your personal information might get collected again by the same or different data brokers over time. It’s a good practice to periodically check if your information is back online and repeat the opt-out process as needed to keep your data private.
  • Use a professional service: There are services available that will handle data removal from multiple data brokers on your behalf, which can save time but often involves a fee.

Review apps and permissions

Apps you install on your devices often collect a large amount of information you might not realize. It’s worth keeping only apps you use and restricting app permissions as much as possible.

  • Uninstall old and unused apps: Start by checking all your devices for installed apps. Then look through each app to identify the ones you don’t use anymore. Before you uninstall these apps, open them to find and use any options that let you delete your account and personal data.
  • Review app permissions: Most apps ask for permissions to access various components of your device, such as your camera contacts, or location data. By periodically reviewing these permissions, you ensure that apps only have access to what they genuinely need to function.
  • Be selective with legitimate apps: Even legitimate apps can be invasive in terms of the data they collect. For example, the Temu(new window) shopping app collects a huge amount of user data. Carefully review the privacy policies of apps before downloading to understand what data they collect and how it will be used.

Secure your remaining online presence

While achieving complete internet anonymity is impossible, you can take steps to protect your data and minimize the amount of information accessible online. We built Proton specifically for this purpose, offering a private alternative to the online services you use, such as email, cloud storage, and calendar.

Proton is grounded in strict Swiss privacy laws(new window), which are some of the strongest in the world. Additionally, we use end-to-end encryption(new window) to make sure that only you can access and read your data — not even we can access your data, and files remain encrypted even if there’s a data breach. All our apps are open source(new window), so anyone can inspect the code to confirm it does what we claim. Independent audits have verified their security and reliability.

Our Dark Web Monitoring(new window) feature immediately notifies you if your personal information has been exposed or compromised. Furthermore, the Proton Sentinel(new window) program provides advanced detection and response to protect your digital environment from sophisticated threats.

Each Proton service protects a different aspect of your digital life, from your device backups to your email communications:

  • Proton Drive offers secure cloud storage with end-to-end encryption and encrypted file-sharing for safe document management. Your identity documents, private photos, and other sensitive data will be secure against data breaches and surveillance.
  • Proton Pass is a password manager that generates strong passwords, supports 2FA, and provides hide-my-email email aliases for enhanced security against attacks.
  • Proton VPN(new window) encrypts your internet connections, maintains a strict no-logs policy, and blocks ads, trackers, and malware for secure browsing.
  • Proton Mail provides encrypted email services with zero-access encryption, tracking protection, and phishing prevention for private communication.
  • Proton Calendar ensures your schedule remains private with end-to-end encryption and customizable event management features.

All of these services offer a Free plan, so you can get started protecting your personal information right away.

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