- There's more information about you out there that you can imagine
- All of it can be had by anyone for a price
- You'll never be able to get all of it down
- But you can reduce it a lot, either manually or by subscribing to a paid service
- Some paid services do a good job of curbing your public data, and here are two of the best
Your life is not private. Even if you've never gone online, plenty of your personal information is out there in public sources such as property records, court filings, voter registrations, and birth, marriage and death records.
Add to that the information you provide to companies in return for loyalty cards or product rebates, and there's a rich seam of information for about 200 data-broker firms to mine.
Data brokers range from benign to rather frightening. Some, such as Experian and IDVerify, help institutions like banks verify your identity to cut down on fraud. Others, such as Acxiom, build specific profiles that marketers use for targeted advertising and that, frankly, may seem pretty creepy.
The most invasive companies, people-finders like Intelius and Spokeo, provide detailed personal information that anyone — even stalkers and abusers — can use to track you down.
"This information that you did not choose to put online could be used against you in very physical, concrete ways," said Gennie Gebhart, a consumer privacy and security researcher at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Data brokers operate differently from advertising companies like Google-owned DoubleClick, which gathers information from your web-browsing activity. You can take some steps to limit browser-based tracking, such as using a privacy-focused browser like Firefox or Brave or posting less frequently on social media. (Facebook is as much an advertising company as a social-media company.)
Although data brokers do pull information from social media and other well-known sites, much of their data comes from public records over which you don't have control. A realistic strategy is not to prevent data brokers from getting all your information, but to prevent them from keeping it.
There are few laws restricting data brokers, and they apply narrowly. For example, California makes companies comply with requests to not post information about registered victims of domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault.
The national Fair Credit Reporting Act prohibits using data-broker information for certain purposes such as screening potential employees, insurance clients or tenants. But there is nothing equivalent to a Do-Not-Call registry allowing anyone to opt out of data-broker tracking.
However, many brokers will voluntarily purge you from their databases after you jump through hoops — usually by completing online forms but sometimes by corresponding by snail-mail or fax.
"You can opt out yourself by hand," says Gebhart. "You'd be making it a weekend, full-time job."
Or you could sign up for a subscription-based privacy service that targets dozens of brokers at once, such as DeleteMe or Privacy Duck. For annual subscription prices starting around the cost of Amazon Prime, their staffs will regularly monitor dozens of major data brokers and file-removal requests.
Is it worthwhile?
Is it worth the time, and possibly the expense, to purge your records?
"I think it depends on what the reason is that you want to be removed," said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "Is it because you are being stalked or you're a victim of domestic violence? Or is it just to enhance your privacy from marketing?"
Genuine fear for your safety or your family's safety may justify spending more time, and perhaps more money, than you would for other reasons. But whatever your reason for acting, know that the results won't be perfect.
Not all brokers offer opt-outs, and there are simply too many brokers out there for anyone, even a remotely affordable service, to comprehensively target. But you can still reduce the risks.
"If we just bury this information on the 40th page of Google results, that might be acceptable," Gebhart said.
You may need to run some opt-out processes more than once, she cautioned, because brokers will continue to collect new data. That further explains the appeal of subscription services.
If you go the DIY route, you should go back and check the data brokers' records periodically. Start by checking a week or two after submitting the deletion request, said Stephens, and then about every 6 months to a year afterwards.
At least some brokers appear to honor the request to not collect new data.
"I have done opt-outs on a number of these websites, and I have gone back after a year," Stephens said, "and the data has not reappeared."
Assess your own risk
Before you undertake a weekend project or shell out for a subscription, do a quick assessment to see just how much of your life is public and the risk that information might pose.
Start with individual web searches on your name, phone number, email address and postal address to see what comes up. Also do a search by combining your name and the word "address."
Searching my own phone number, for instance, I quickly found links to my records on people-search sites such as Whitepages and Intelius. Searching on my Gmail address brought me to people-finder Spokeo.
You can also directly search key data-broker sites to see what they have and how accurate it is. Sites typically return just enough information to prove that they have the right person, then charge a few dollars — or upsell you to a subscription — before you can see the full record.
Start with people-finders, which represent the greatest danger to your personal privacy because they make the information available to anyone.
Websites to check
As a journalist, I may have more of my own info online than most people would. So I also searched for a relative.
Starting with just my relative's first and last name, most services returned a plethora of specific data, including my relative's age, current and past addresses, names of other family members, and current and previous employers. (For some sites, though, I had to provide my relative's current address to get accurate results.)
Many of these services pull info from social-media accounts as well. The targeted person's address and information about close family members is often available for free, so a would-be stalker can target an unlimited number of people without even paying.
After you search for yourself or family members, ask yourself how what you found makes your feel.
"Ok, my phone number is up here. Who am I worried might find that, and how am I worried they'll use it?" Gebhart said. "Depending on that answer, I'm going to expend a different amount of time and resources to get it down."
We pay for a lot of modern conveniences such as streaming video and music, next-day shipping and meal and grocery delivery. Considering what we spend on things that are nice to have, it's reasonable to pay for a privacy service if you legitimately fear that you or your loved ones might be stalked or harassed.
The best option for a data-removal service, based on both price and reputation, is Abine's DeleteMe service. Its pricing starts at $10.75 per month (with a one-year subscription) to have one person's records removed from 38 major data finders.
At $129 total per year, DeleteMe is not cheap, but it doesn’t cost much more than the $119 per year that people pay for Amazon Prime. DeleteMe offers several other packages, such as a two-year, two-person subscription for $14.54 per month (a tad less than HBO Now).
Signing up for and setting up DeleteMe took me about a half hour. I entered basic information, including my name, date of birth, and all the phone numbers, emails, and postal addresses I'd like DeleteMe to make sure are purged.
It may be a bit unsettling for people worried about personal privacy to submit so much information to an online service, but the information you provide is necessary for DeleteMe to do its job.
DeleteMe is supposed to send you a progress report after seven days, and then continue to monitor your identity, sending quarterly update reports. The yearly subscription auto-renews unless you tell it not to.
Things started happening quickly after I signed up with DeleteMe. Three days after I signed up, I was emailed my first report. It listed 32 data-broker services that DeleteMe had found holding my information, and which DeleteMe had asked to remove my data.
The next day, I received an update that three of those services — Addresses.com, Spokeo.com and PeopleSmart.com — had confirmed they had deleted my information. Several others — including biggies like BeenVerified.com and Intelius.com — pledged to purge my records in the coming weeks.
The information that services had on me varied widely. Addressses.com, for instance, reported having just my name, age, address and phone number.
MyLife.com claimed to have my name, age, address, phone number, past address, email, occupation, relationship status, spouse (I don't have one), family members, social media accounts, photo, property records (I own no property) and court records.
Another respected service, PrivacyDuck, is more extensive than DeleteMe, but also more expensive. Its entry-level plan covers the information pertaining to two people at 86 data brokers, but it costs a hefty $499 per year. However, PrivacyDuck might still be a valid choice if you have solid reason to fear harassers and want to cover multiple individuals.
DeleteMe and PrivacyDuck "are a better solution in terms of time, and I think more thorough, than any private citizen realistically could be," Gebhart said. "But of course, they cost money and they also won't be perfect."
Data collection will likely drop off significantly after the initial opt-out requests go through. So even if you quit one of these services after a year, you will have made a long-term dent in how much information data brokers have about you.
Manually opting out
If you'd rather part with a weekend (or more) than a few hundred dollars (or more), you can go the manual route for opting out of brokers. Start with the list of companies that DeleteMe contact as part of its paid service to get a sense of how much work would be required to manage all 38 of them. The company's website also provides free, step-by-step instructions for how to opt out of these and about 130 additional sites.
If you want to go deeper in your manual purge, try the 86 sites listed for PrivacyDuck's Basic service or the 167 sites in its $999 VIP offering. PrivacyDuck doesn't post removal instructions, but you can use the free instructions on DeleteMe's site instead.
There are pluses and minuses to these processes regardless of whether you go the paid or the DIY route. On the plus side, you will be able to remove a big chunk of your personal information from the world, or at least make the information harder to find. You will also have a better understanding of what information is out there and how easily people can access and abuse it.
On the minus side, the data removal will be far from perfect. But perfection is never a realistic goal in guarding privacy or security.
"Nothing is going to be comprehensive. That is impossible," Gebhart said. "But it's about reasserting control, and the extent to which you gain that control. That's where you're going to find liberation from this fear."