As search engine marketers, we often want to know absolutely everything about people who spend time online. The juicier the demographics data, the more targeted we can be with our marketing approaches. To us, revelation is wonderful.
But, just because we want to know everything about everyone else doesn’t mean we want all of our own data out there. And, there are times when letting it all hang out can be a little dangerous. For example, data collection sites can aggregate all sorts of personal information about you or your clients, including:
- Dates of birth
- Cell phone numbers
- Land line numbers
- Email addresses
That’s the sort of data people could use to steal your identity. And it’s the same kind of information that makes a cyber attack super easy to pull off. Just as soon as you or your clients publish something controversial, your attackers could head right over. In real time.
Legislative Responses Probably Won’t Help
There’s something inherently icky about personal information appearing on public websites. Most people know that data shouldn’t be there and should be erased. Even legislators get it. And in 2015, they’ve tried to do something about it.
The Obama Administration vowed to crack down on internet data collection, and in February, the team pushed out draft-form legislation that would protect consumer privacy. Unfortunately, the response was far from glowing. Internet companies thought the legislation went too far, while some legislators thought it didn’t go far enough.
It’s possible that the bill will survive the revisions process and emerge with protections that could really help consumers. Stranger things have happened. But those changes might come too late for people who face public exposure right now, right out in the open.
Down and Dirty with Deletion
Obviously, it’s not in your best interest to erase every single snippet of defining information from the internet. People seem to expect to find at least something when they search for you online. (Proof: The Daily Mail ran an article in 2012 posing a link between psychopathic behaviors and the lack of a Facebook presence. I am not kidding.)
But there’s no reason to leave personal, identifying information online. It can’t really add to business success, after all, and there are very few instances in which someone might desperately need this information in order to get in touch with you. (Can’t they just reach out on a social channel?)
Thankfully, there are all sorts of ways to erase that data from aggregate sites. Here are three approaches.
1. Erase the Source Information
Aggregate sites don’t create information. They pull it from other places (hence the name). That means a comprehensive cleanup typically begins with source pages.
The quickest and easiest source to clean up involves phone records. Almost every single company out there, including providers of both landlines and cell lines, provides consumers with a privacy option. That little opt-out can keep a name and number out of a printed directory and an online directory. It’s a good first place to start a cleanup.
Everything else is a little harder. For example, some data breaches come from newspaper articles. Coverage of something a little tawdry can come with an address, and if you write in a letter to a newspaper, that org might also print your address. Some newspapers even print obituaries, full of information about your ancestors. That’s data gold, and while Europeans can get those articles removed (more than 6,000 have done so, per news reports), Americans can’t. The laws here aren’t the same.
You can contact the publisher of said paper directly and outline your case, but those officials just aren’t required to listen to you or do what you’ve asked. And if you ask Google to intercede, you’re probably out of luck. Google specifically says that phone numbers and addresses are fair game, and they aren’t usually removed.
Same goes for legal documents. If you file a case in court, or you’re the subject of a court case, official documents have all sorts of identifying data in them. Your name, your address, your age and other juicy bits are embedded in most court documents, and there are all sorts of sites that pull in that information and make it available for public consumption.
These sites can also be a little snarky about removing information. And they may have a point. As one site puts it, court cases set legal precedence. New laws come from old rulings. Having the data online makes understanding the law easier. But if your case is online, you might not agree.
My advice? Handle each review request with as much courtesy as you can muster. Be polite, be firm, and be explicit about why you want the data removed. List the parts that should go, and ask politely for cooperation. You may not get it, but asking nicely might get you closer than demanding something the sites aren’t obligated to provide.
2. Contact Aggregate Sites Directly
My some estimates, there are 33 aggregate sites that pull private information for public consumption. And to do an accurate cleanup by the books, you’d need to contact each and every one. And you’d need to repeat that work regularly, as the data you remove could pop back up in time.
I did a little experimenting with two sites today, so I can give you estimates about how long this work might take. And brace yourself, as it isn’t a speedy process.
I started with Spokeo. This site provides a seven step removal process that’s free with no registration required. I managed to complete all of those steps in a little less than 5 minutes, and the data I flagged was removed in 24 hours.
But I then went to Intelius, and things got interesting. I can’t just ask for an opt-out here. Instead, I’ll need to provide a scan of a form of government identification, like a driver’s license or a passport. Only then can I fill out the form to get my information removed.
Full disclosure: I didn’t take this step. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of any agency handling my details, even if the agency says they’ll respect my rights, so I opted to opt out of this process. But I’ll estimate that finding the paperwork, scanning it and sending it might take as long as 20 minutes.
So with this rough data, I can imagine that it might take 30 minutes or more to remove data from two sites (and there may be many uncomfortable moments along the way). That means I can expect to spend about 8 hours on site cleanup, just to catch everything on all 33 sites. And I’ll need to repeat that work regularly.
The pros are that this is a free approach. But the cons are pretty clear. This is a huge chunk of time for anyone to spend on something like site deletions. Clients might balk at this huge jump in billable hours, too, if you’re on the clock for all of this work on their behalf.
3. Hire it Out
There’s an obvious solution here. If the data must be removed and you don’t have the time to take it out, you can subcontract the work to companies that specialize in this sort of thing. Abine provides a popular tool called DeleteMe that claims to remove all sorts of private information from aggregate sites. And, any reputation management firm out there can do the same. These programs can be somewhat expensive, but they can save you a great deal of time.
Finding a Balance
It’s really easy to fall down the rabbit hole with this kind of stuff. When I started researching this piece, I got more than a little obsessed with the amount of information I could find about me and my household with just a little bit of searching.
It’s important to remember, however, that it’s just not possible to delete every single bit of information about you from online databases. Your clients can’t expect that, either. The web is a vast place, and as well all know, the information available is always changing.
But by following these three steps (or just picking your fav step and doing that one as best you can), you’ll be well on your way to removing some of the most egregious information available.
And I’d love to hear your experiences. Did you find something awful or personal in a search? What did you do?
Subscribe to SEJ
Get our daily newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!