What To Do When Your Personal Information Becomes Publicly Available Online

If you’ve ever looked up someone’s name, number, or address in Google or in other search engines, chances are you’ve come across a variety of different types of websites. In saying this, you should realize that every search query and search engine results page is unique of course. However, the following are the most common types of search results you will see when “Googling” someone.

A Look Inside The Information Industry

Information can define your online identity

Photo by Alistairas

The other thing you have to consider is that MANY of these websites are branching out and sharing their resources (your data), a lot of them are owned by the same companies, and a lot of them appear to wear several hats at once. You might notice they are a data broker, background check provider, and reputation management company all at the same time…really now?! Yeah, you will notice that many of these types of websites happen to offer “search engine listing removal services”, usually under different business names and other nifty changes to apparently bypass any legal ramifications. So essentially the same people that collect, organize, and display your data out there on the Internet will discontinue what they’re doing if you provide them with a sizable one-time or monthly payment. Yep, stuff like this is happening all around the world; check out Wired’s article about the “Mugshot Industry”. ZDNet Author Violet Blue discusses all the juicy details regarding the “interesting” relationships between data brokers, information databases, and “people search” websites in an enlightening write-up. I found the following excerpt to be particularly telling of this “industry’s” typical behavior:

“For instance, US Search (now owned by people search giant Intelius) was sued last October by the FTC for promising customers their PrivacyLock service would block customers’ data from public access (PrivacyLock’s own claims to remove individuals from results were false). Reputation.com – aka ReputationDefender – has a partnership with people search service Spokeo, making some people wonder how closely the companies are linked.”

Another recent example that perfectly illustrates the “online information-gathering” industry’s conflicting and controversial nature is the story of the once popular IsAnyoneUp.com, the website’s original owner Hunter Moore, and the Cheaterville.com website and the website’s owner James McGibney, discussed in this Forbes article. Basically, IsAnyoneUp.com used to display people’s photos with or without their permission, along with their real Facebook profile. This lead to all sorts of professional and personal troubles and ended with Moore getting stabbed by a woman who had appeared on the website.

Moore ended up selling the website to McGibney, who redirected the website to BullyVille.com, an anti-bullying website. Sounds like an eventual positive outcome right? Well a part of it is I guess, but you have to wonder about the fact that Cheaterville.com advertises a reputation management service called RemoveMyName.com. Cheaterville is where people’s information and personal identities are associated with unverifiable online gossip. So, the Cheaterville.com website has advertising banners which conveniently advertise a service that claims to provide online reputation management solutions. Gee, I wonder if this RemoveMyName service can help you remove your information from a website like Cheaterville.com?

Matt Ivester operated a similar website called JuicyCampus, where students essentially had a “free for all” forum to sling personal insults and associate those insults with someone’s personal identity through the almighty power of the Google search results. JuicyCampus provided a public outlet for STD accusations and related gossip, and these types of discussions were being associated with people’s online identities whenever you happen to Google their name. Ivester ended up closing the website down (this is great but there are MANY clones popping up), and seems to be focusing his efforts on spreading online reputation management information. More information on JuicyCampus Ivester’s story can be found here; and you can check out his book on personal online reputation management called lol…OMG!: What Every Student Needs to Know About Online Reputation Management, Digital Citizenship and Cyberbullying.

So yeah you really do have to wonder about issues like conflicting interests, ethics and what not when it comes to these types of websites. However, I am not going to go into all of my disagreements with certain companies’ business practices and ethics. On the other side of the coin, people should also recognize that these websites do often serve the public good. For example, many of these types of information databases and information aggregators can help law enforcement locate people and solve cases.

What You Can Do About The Information You Find Online

Erasing Information and Protecting Your Privacy

Photo by Alan Cleaver

Enough details about the seedy “online information industry”, what can you — the average person — do when these types of “public information” websites are showing up on the first page of Google and potentially displaying undesirable or negative information? The good news is that you do have options. The bad news is that, in my opinion, many of these options are not really a “solution” to the problem, more like an “active Band-Aid” constantly covering up the “wound”, without being able to address the wound or the real root of the problem.

I should say that this is certainly not any of the service providers’ faults, as they seemingly do everything they can that is in their power to help. However, the root of the problem is the fact that these “shady” data broker/public information business operations are allowed to collect and display “public/private” information the way that they do, their business entities can charge for removal/reputation management services, they can force you to jump through all kinds of hoops to get yourself unlisted, they can relist your old and new information seemingly at will, new “public information gathering” websites like these are popping up daily, etc.

Using Privacy Settings Effectively

One VERY quick and easy thing you can do right away is adjust your privacy settings on social networks like Facebook, as this is how some of these websites might collect/scrape your information. Read this updated wikiHow article that includes a visual guide for more details on controlling your privacy on Facebook.

Helpful documentation exists for LinkedIn and MySpace as well.

Know What Kind Of Information You Are Putting Out There

Along with using social media responsibly and ensuring that you’re using effective privacy settings, it is a good idea to check up on the type of information that companies are currently collecting about you. Many companies have different kinds of Opt-In/Opt-Out procedures when it comes to collecting your data.

Google Takeout lets you see all the data that is stored within all of your Google Products. You can view a graph that shows all of the Google services you subscribe to and you can download a zip file of everything. Google Takeout is brought to you by The Data Liberation Front.

The Facebook Help Center provides a way to download all of your data that Facebook has collected over time.

Avoid Online Surveys

Another thing you can do every day is NOT filling out online surveys of any kind, unless you know they’re legitimate or you really need to for whatever reason. The reason these online survey companies can afford to give someone an all-expenses-paid-for vacation to Jamaica and a lifetime supply of PS3 games is because they are selling your data aka your answers to the highest bidder, aka these types of data brokers we’re discussing here.

Privacy and Anti-Tracking Services

Now, onto the more “in-depth” and potentially “costly” solutions; when I say costly, I mean costly in terms of either ongoing money spent or ongoing time spent working on these “solutions”. Unfortunately there is no “magic request form” that will instantly solve these issues, so you have to work with what you are given until some significant changes are made in the legal landscape.

Abine is an independent, positively-reviewed company free of any aforementioned “conflicting interests” that provides an active solution for people wanting to remove their information from many of these types of websites. Abine’s solution is known as DeleteMe.

SafeShepherd is another company that provides similar ongoing online privacy services.

Abine also offers a very popular FREE browser add-on called “Do Not Track Plus” or “DNT+”. According to the Abine website, the DNT+ browser tool “…blocks the tracking capabilities of advertisers, social networks, and data-collection companies. DNT+ helps you restore your online privacy and regain control over who sees what you are doing online, stop annoying pop up ads and other targeted advertising, and load certain websites up to 4 times faster…When you visit a website, that site tells your browser to contact all sorts of other companies to get information about what you do and who you are. DNT+ stops that data collection from happening by preventing your browser from communicating with these companies.”

You also have the option of completing these information removal request processes yourself, if you’d like to spend your own time rather than your own money. Fortunately Abine offers their standard removal process instructions for free right on their website, and I think this is an indicator of the good intentions of this company and a few others like it. They really do want to help you out. Click here to check out the “Do It Yourself” opt-out instructions provided by Abine.

Abine’s DIY guide seems to provide a good foundation for those wanting to complete the “public/private” online information removal process and attack the “root” of the problem. Another evolving list of specific website’s information removal processes can be found at http://unlistmy.info/sites. This website seems really promising because it appears to be updated CONSTANTLY.

Ghostery is a browser add-on that “tracks the trackers and gives you a roll-call of the ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers, and other companies interested in your activity”. Ghostery allows you to learn more about the companies that are tracking you. You can read their individual privacy policies and read about how they describe themselves. You can also learn about other websites these companies are associated with. With Ghostery you can block scrips from companies that you do not trust.

AdBlock Plus is a browser add-on that is similar to Ghostery. With an initial primary focus on blocking annoying and disruptive ads on the web, this open-source project has evolved and now includes lots of different privacy-related features. You can create your own filters based on what type of information you want to pass on to websites as you browse the web. AdBlock Plus users can easily disable all tracking and surf the web completely anonymously. Stanford University research seems to conclude that the Adblock Plus tracking protection filters are the most efficient of all available tracking protection solutions.

Contact The Website’s Owner

You can always try contacting the webmaster/author of the undesirable content and attempt to have them remove the content. I would like to say I have seen this option work out really well for people in past experiences, but unfortunately most people do not seem to have much luck with this “method”. Still, it is certainly worth trying to contact the webmaster if you can easily locate their relevant contact information. If by chance you are able to get the webmaster to remove your “undesirable/negative/unwanted/personal” information, you still might need to ensure that the old cached page gets removed from the public search results. Check out Google’s documentation on how to go about removing a cached page.

Going Directly To Google

Can Google help you out directly if a certain websites are affecting your online reputation? Yes, in certain scenarios Google can help you out by removing websites from their search results. What are these scenarios? Check out the following pages for more information:

Basically, if the information on a certain website contains your social security number, a government ID number, your bank account number, your credit card number, or an image of your handwritten signature, then Google can remove the website. Also, if your first and last name and/or the name of your business appears on an adult content site that’s spamming Google’s search results, Google can and will remove the offending website.

Legal Options

The situations mentioned above are not the only way to get Google to remove certain websites. Another particularly costly option is to file a defamation lawsuit against the original author of the website in question. You will need a court-issued document declaring the information to be false and/or defamatory. From there, you will need to submit this declaration to Google using their “Report other legal removal issue” feedback form.

Conclusion

Speaking of Google, I’d recommend checking out their blog post regarding personal online reputation management, “Managing your reputation through search results”.

So, you can obviously decide which options to try out, which options are appropriate for your personal situation, and which overall direction you would like to take in order to solve your personal online reputation management issues. Regardless of what specific options you pursue, I STRONGLY suggest that you complete all of the steps mentioned in our Basic Guide To Online Reputation Management, as these processes will help you develop and maintain a proactive branding campaign and give you more control over your personal identity online.

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