You’re on the internet and found someone has uploaded an embarrassing picture of you, or your personal details such as your address, phone number or date of birth have been published online without you knowing. What can you do in circumstances like these?
Removing unwanted personal data from the goldfish bowl that is the internet can take time and patience, with no guarantee of success, but there are several ways to approach it.
Prevention is easier than cure. As an initial step, you can avoid making the problem worse by ensuring your social network privacy settings are not ‘public.’ Otherwise your profile will show up in internet searches.
Your first step in removing any existing data is a search on your own name to establish where unwanted results exist. Make a note of where it is or bookmark it.
Related: Seven ways to protect yourself from identity fraud
How to remove data about yourself
Bear in mind that only a tiny proportion of online material is created by search engines such as Google. They rather serve as giant indexing systems for information published by others.
Your first move therefore should be to attempt removal at source.
Most simply, this could involve deleting data or changing privacy settings on your social networks or blogs, or deleting posts under your own name from internet forums. It might mean asking family or friends to un-tag a photo of you or delete a status.
The same principle applies with other websites, online directories or internet forums – in fact, anywhere where unwanted data about you appears. You will need to ascertain the site owner’s contact details and request removal of the offending data.
If accepted, it will still show up in search results for a while. Search engines crawl the web periodically, indexing pages as they go. Only after the next indexing would the data disappear from search results.
To accelerate this de-indexing you can fill out an online form supplied by the search engine, such as the Google Removal Tool. Other search engines like Bing and Yahoo! provide forms of their own.
You will unfortunately need to follow a similar procedure for each search engine you want to cleanse – I did say this would demand patience…
Where you cannot remove the data at source
If the site owner is untraceable or unwilling to help, you can still ask the search engine to de-index it. If successful, your data will remain online, but will not turn up in search results.
You can expect action in certain cases, such as where the data is illegal or defamatory, or revealing certain other sensitive information – for example bank account or credit card numbers.
Otherwise you may face a struggle. If the material really bothers you there is no harm in asking – but politeness and persuasive powers will be useful.
Related: Five scams that try to steal your personal information.
Burying the information
A last resort is burying negative search results with positive ones.
Social network results tend to rank highly. By joining extra networks under your real name, posting innocuous statuses - and this time setting privacy as ‘public’ - you could push negative results down the rankings.
Shunting them off the first page of results should be your first aim as many people do not look beyond that. Linking among networks will boost their prominence further.
Apps such as DeleteMeMobile for iPhone promise to do some of the work by removing your address details from certain online directories.
Total removal of yourself from the internet is regarded virtually impossible, but you can ameliorate some possible damaging effects.
Reputation services proposing to do the work for you are an option, but caution is advised about parting with large sums of money, especially without proof they will work.