How to Delete Yourself from the Internet

While you can’t delete your personal info from the internet entirely, you can take strong steps to remove it from risky places. Several where others could tap into it for profit or harm. 

Why is it so important to take control of our personal info? It has street value, and it has for some time now. Because so much of business, finance, healthcare, and life in general runs on it, your personal info has a dollar sign to it. Plenty of people want to get a hold of it. 

Personal info fuels targeted advertising and marketing campaigns, just as it helps adjusters set insurance rates and healthcare providers make projections about our well-being. Businesses want it for employment background checks. Law enforcement uses it when investigating persons of interest. Banks and credit card companies base their approvals on it. Websites and apps collect it for their own purposes, which they sometimes share or sell to third parties. 

And of course, hackers, scammers, and thieves want it too. To steal your identity, drain your accounts, and wage other attacks on you.  

No doubt, your personal info has value. High value. And that makes a strong argument for doing what you can to control what you share and where you share it to the best possible degree. With so much that hinges on your personal info, it’s good to know that you can take control in powerful ways. We’ll show how it’s far easier to do that today than ever before. 

Get to know your digital shadow. 

Taking control of your personal info starts with a look at your digital shadow. Everyone casts one. And like everyone else’s digital shadow, yours gets filled with info about you — personal info stored online across the internet. 

For starters, your digital shadow includes things like posts in forums, social media profiles, the posts that you put up there, and other people’s posts that mention you. It includes other sources of info, like pictures of you in an online newsletter, your name listed in the standings of your co-ed soccer league, and a bio of you on your company’s “About Us” page. Online reviews provide potential sources too. In all, this part of your digital shadow grows larger in two ways — as you say more things, and as more things are said about you.  

Your shadow grows yet more with the addition of public records. That might include what you paid for your home, who lives there with you, your age, your children, your driving record, education, occupation, and estimated income. It all depends on where you live and what data regulations are in place there. Some regions have stricter privacy rules in place than others when it comes to public records. For example, in the U.S., California, Virginia, Connecticut, Colorado, Utah, Iowa, Indiana, Tennessee, Oregon, Montana, Texas, and Delaware have strong data privacy laws on the books. The European Union has its well-known GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation, in place. 

Then there’s all manner of info about you gathered and sold by online data brokers. Data brokers pull hundreds of data points from public sources, not to mention private sources like supermarket club cards that track your shopping history. Other private sources include info from app developers and websites with less restrictive privacy policies when it comes to sharing and selling info. These data brokers sell personal info to anyone who’ll pay, including hackers, scammers, and spammers. 

Finally, a sizable swathe of your shadow comes from info stored on the deep web. It forms the 95% of the internet that’s not searchable. Yet, you likely take trips there daily. Any time you go through a paywall or use a password to access internet content, you’re entering the deep web.  

Examples include logging into your bank account, accessing medical records through your healthcare provider, or using corporate web pages as part of your workday. Even streaming a show can involve a trip to the deep web. None of that content is searchable.  

What’s in there, aside from your Netflix viewing history? Think of all the info that forms the basis of your credit score, your health history, your financial info, and all the info that websites and advertisers capture about you as you simply spend time online. That’s the deep web too. 

A subset of the deep web is the dark web. It’s not searchable as well, and it requires a special browser to access. Some of the sites and data stores found there are entirely legitimate, others questionable, and several are outright illegal. Some of your info might be there too. And yes, you’ll find dark marketplaces here where bad actors put up personal info for sale. 

Everyone online indeed has a digital shadow. And some shadows are longer than others.   

Taking control of your personal info matters, perhaps more than you think. 

So, what’s the big deal? That’s how the internet works, right? 

That’s a fair question. Part of the answer comes down to how important a person thinks their privacy is. Yet, more objectively, keeping a lower profile online offers better protection from cybercrime. 

Consider research published by the science journal Nature, in 2019. Here’s an excerpt from the authors: 

Using our model, we find that 99.98% of Americans would be correctly re-identified in any dataset using 15 demographic attributes. Our results suggest that even heavily sampled anonymized datasets are unlikely to satisfy the modern standards for anonymization set forth by GDPR [Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation] and seriously challenge the technical and legal adequacy of the de-identification release-and-forget model.

Put in practical terms, imagine a hacker or snoop gets their hands on a large set of public or private data. Like say, health data about certain medical conditions. Even though that data has been “scrubbed” to make the people in it anonymous, that hacker or snoop only needs 15 pieces of info to identify you in that mix. From there, they could pinpoint any health conditions linked to you. 

In a time when all kinds of organizations gather all kinds of data, the impact of this research finding is clear. Data breaches happen, and a determined person can spot you in a batch of breached data with relative ease. They have several tools readily available that can cobble together those other 15 pieces of info to identify you. That further strengthens the argument for taking control of your personal info. 

Deleting your info on the internet has its benefits. 

Shortening your so-called digital shadow helps improve everyday life in several ways. It can: 

Cut down the number of sketchy texts, emails, and calls you get. If a hacker, scammer, or spammer can’t track down your contact info, they can’t reach you on your computers and phones. Removing info from data broker sites, old accounts you no longer use, and even social media can make it harder for them to reach you. 

Reduce the risk of identity crimes, like theft, fraud, and harassment. Bad actors turn people’s info against them. With it, they take out loans in other people’s names, file bogus insurance claims, and, in more extreme cases, impersonate others for employment or criminal purposes. When you have less info online, they have less info to work with. That makes their attacks tougher to pull off. So tough that they might turn to another, easier target who has much more info online. 

Keep snoops out of your business when taking care of things online. Tracking and monitoring are simple facts of going online. Sites and businesses do it for performance and marketing purposes. Hackers and bad actors do it for outright theft. Taking steps to mask and outright hide your activities online benefits your privacy and your security. 

Take control of what people do and don’t know about you. Most broadly, increased privacy largely gives you the power to share your info. Not someone else. The fact is that many companies share info with other companies. And some of those other third parties might have looser data privacy and data security measures in place. What’s more, you likely have no idea who those third parties are. Increased privacy helps you take far more control of where your info does and doesn’t go. 

Five ways you can delete your info from the internet. 

The following can help: 

1. Delete old apps. And be choosy about permissions on your phones. Fewer apps mean fewer avenues of potential data collection. If you have old, unused apps, consider deleting them, along with the accounts and data linked with them.  

 2. Delete old accounts. Many internet users can have over 350 online accounts, many of which they might not know are still active. McAfee Online Account Cleanup can help you delete them. It runs monthly scans to find your online accounts and shows you their risk level. From there, you can decide which to delete, protecting your personal info from data breaches and your overall privacy as a result. 

 3. Make your social media accounts more private. Our new McAfee Social Privacy Manager helps safeguard your privacy on social media by personalizing your privacy based on your preferences. It does the heavy lifting by adjusting more than 100 privacy settings across your social media accounts in only a few clicks. This ensures that your personal info is only visible to the people you want to share it with. It also keeps it out of search engines where the public can see it.

4. Remove your info from data brokers that sell it. McAfee Personal Data Cleanup helps you remove your personal info from many of the riskiest data broker sites out there. Running this feature regularly can keep your name and info off these sites, even as data brokers collect and post new info. Depending on your plan, it can send requests to remove your data automatically. 

 5. Take preventive measures. A few steps can help you keep your info off the internet in the first place. A VPN helps make your time online more private and more secure by obscuring things like your IP address and other identifying info. It also prevents hackers and snoops from monitoring your activity when you bank, shop, and access other accounts. Also, check out our article that covers privacy on your phone. Because phones offer others so many ways to gather personal info, making your phone more private helps make you more private. 

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