In the past, if we wanted to know anything about our great grandparents, we only had a few old photographs and the various stories that were passed down from our parents to rely on.
Since the invention of the Internet, times have changed, however, and now you can find a virtual plethora of information on practically anyone at the touch of the button or the wave of a mouse.
From those romantic messages you share with that special someone on Facebook, to your personal financial information that you store online, you’re constantly leaving your own little mark on the Internet. Like walking along a vast beach in wet sand in your bare feet, your unique steps are all recorded somewhere, and all within the grasp of someone who has the power to demand them or the knowledge to access them by force.
This doesn’t stop when the end of the day comes and you turn off your laptop, put your phone on charge and go to bed either. Quite the contrary. While you are fast asleep, your digital footprint is swimming in the vast ocean, further and further afield with every day that passes.
If you haven’t given much thought to this until recently, you can’t be blamed either. After all, cybercrime has only risen in profile in recent years and as for mass surveillance, well, while we may have had our suspicions, we had nothing concrete until a certain Edward Snowden became the most famous whistle-blower on the planet.
How big is my footprint?
A good question and while it may seem almost impossible to answer this query, there is software that can help you answer it to some degree and get you on the path to erasing your digital footprint. The EMC2 Digital Footprint Calculator will require you to answer some questions about how much time you spend online surfing the net, chatting on social networks, even your phone usage and will “determine the rate at which you create digital information.”
If you have been very active online over the last few years, you may find this quite a task. Remember that social network you signed up for and never used, or the email account that you opened and discarded after you forgot your login details? Exactly.
Deactivate unused accounts
If you, like millions of other people, jumped ship from MySpace to Facebook in the last several years, you may or may not have deleted your old account. After all, at the time you may have been unsure as to whether you would stay, or even planned on using both together.
Well, if you haven’t already, now is the time to make a list of every site you’ve joined and account you’ve created and to start deleting them all. An important factor to remember is that deactivating is different to deleting, so you should look out for this when you get started.
Deleting your information from other sites
Depending on how active you’ve been, this can take a little while or a good deal longer. This can be done by completing forms or manually deleting any information that’s being held about you on various sites. Just type your name into Google and go from there. You may have to contact sites and ask them or do it, or to advise you how to delete said information.
If you have been as active as me, this could take days, or even weeks, so you may want to exercise some patience. There are also plenty of sites that will be happy to help you remove your data should you have any problems, one of which is Delete Me which works to have your data removed from sites that collect and sell your info. However, it will cost you between $99 - $159 per year, depending on if it’s just you or you want to carry out a digital cleanup for your partner as well.
Once you have done all you can to delete your digital footprint, you have two choices, to stay offline, which you probably won't want to do, or to keep on top of your digital footprint from now on. While sites like this will do what they can to help, you will now have to be proactive if you want to keep your footprint from spreading again.
Block search engines
A recent story that broke in the UK reported how the leading political parties were effectively erasing data from 2000 – 2010 using robot.txt to place search engine blockers for pages and parts of the sites they don’t want found, so as not to be held accountable for past promises etc. While we would rather our politicians just kept to their word, it’s not a bad idea if you have information on your website that you do not want to be picked up by search engines. However, this can be quite tricky for the lay person, so if you are looking to do this and you don’t have the expertise, you may want to employ the skills of a professional web designer.
Of course, you and I can simply delete web pages that are no longer relevant and simply place a 301 redirect in order to ensure that they are not indexed by the search engines. However, with information that’s supposed to be publically available, this isn’t possible in a democratic society, so they’re using web crawlers to ensure the information is very difficult to find in the first place and can’t be accessed via search engines.
Google Alerts is an easy way of keeping up to date on any information that is circulating with your name attached. If your name is John Brown, you may find that you’re getting thousands of emails regarding other people, so this is easier to use if your name is a little less popular.
The dreaded cookies
If you are particularly concerned about cookies you can go to the settings on your device and opt to block them completely. However, this isn’t viable for most of us as cookies are essential for using many sites, including Amazon and Facebook.
However, there is a do not track feature on most modern browsers, so if you can set your browser not to track, that will also help.
Most sites now give you the option when accessing them to allow cookies or not. If you prefer not to, simply say no and they won’t allow cookies while you are browsing.
When you have finished browsing, take the time to manually clear your cookies. This too can be done through your browser. If you are unsure how then it may be worth looking at Flash Cookie Cleaner as this will be able to help you do it more effectively. Temporary Internet files should also be cleared regularly in the options dialogue box of whichever browser you use.
An ongoing process
As you can see, deleting and controlling the spread of your personal information is an ongoing process. However, if it is very important to you, there is a chance that you will be able to vastly reduce the amount of information that is readily available about you on the Internet. Except, of course, that which has already been collected by various government agencies and that which is being held elsewhere.