Refresh and Renew
Curate your online identity and accounts
Every once in a while, you search for your name on Google or DuckDuckGo (even better!), just to see what’s out there.
That’s where you find a treasure trove of your digital traces: silly photos from high school, decade-old reviews for restaurants, that blog you put together to profess fandom for a long-forgotten TV series...
Do you really want all that out there for the world to see?
It’s easy to lose track of all the information you put out there, and all the old social media, shopping, and fan accounts you’ve signed up for across various websites and apps. Want to detox your accounts? Here are a few tips.
Let’s start with your smartphone: Do you know how many apps you have installed? Take a guess, and then grab your phone and count them (yes, including all those apps that came with the phone). Is the number higher than you expected? With each app you sign up for, your data is more exposed.
- 0 – 19: Very low exposure
- 20 – 39: Low exposure
- 40 – 59: Medium exposure
- 60 – 80: High exposure
- 80 or more: Very high exposure
The more apps you have, the more your data builds up, and the more companies have access to it.
Cleaning up your digital traces can be especially helpful when graduating from university, searching for a new job, or setting up your own business (to name a few)—but it’s also helpful to revisit it regularly, like a digital spring cleaning. In the same way you tidy up after yourself in your home, so too should you erase yourself from the websites or apps that no longer spark joy.
This Data Detox will shine a light on your digital build-up, and give you concrete steps to dispose of unwanted accounts and search results today, making space for a new you tomorrow.
Roll up your sleeves up and get ready for this digital makeover.
Who Are You to Others?
Have you ever thought about how others might get different results when they search your name? That’s because of the hidden workings of search engines.
To get a clearer idea of what your online self ‘looks like’ to other people, give your browser a good clean before searching.
- Open the browser you use the most, and log out of all your email and social media accounts.
- Clear your browser history and cookies:
- Menu →
- Preferences →
- Privacy & Security →
- Under Cookies and Site Data: Clear Data
- Under History: Clear History (Time range to clear: Everything)
- Menu →
- History →
- Clear browsing data →
- Clear the following items from: all time.
- Safari in the top menu bar →
- Clear history →
- Clear: all history
Note: your history of visited sites will be lost unless bookmarked, as will things like saved passwords and webform entries.
Now you’re ready to see your search results as someone else might!
Search your name
- Go to a search engine (start with Google and then try some others, such as Qwant or DuckDuckGo).
- Now search your name. If you have a name that’s very common, add an additional piece of identifying data, such as your work, city, or where you went to school. You can separate key terms by using quotation marks ("").
- Scan the first handful of results. What’s associated with your name?
Search your picture
- Click on images below the search bar.
- Find out if any of your current or past profile pictures are out there. They may be attached to your name, or another name—you might be surprised. This is why searching for the image itself may yield unique results.
- Choose one image to start with – perhaps an old profile picture from a social media account.
- Go to a ‘reverse image’ search engine like TinEye.com and upload the image (click the upload arrow or camera icon). Where else is this image being displayed?
Start Small, One at a Time
While it might feel overwhelming to see all of your digital traces, take a breath, grab a cup of tea, and start small. Pick just one website or app that you wish to close or search result you’d like to remove and follow the steps below. The key to feeling great about this detox is taking a small but concrete step toward your goal.
Pace yourself! So that you don’t get overwhelmed, give yourself a specific time-frame to work through this detox each week (it can be as little as 15-30 minutes of your time) and repeat it regularly to keep your digital traces tidy.
Love It or Leave It?
In order to figure out whether to erase the search result or close your account, you’ll want to take the following considerations to heart:
- Will you need it later on? You won’t want to delete yourself from something that you’ll still need or want to use at some point in the near future. It’s fine to not use all of your accounts everyday, but even your lesser used accounts will need a strong password (for guidance on passwords, learn to make your passwords stronger).
- In case you’d like to browse alternative options for apps, which are more privacy-conscious, check out the Alternative App Centre.
- Is it linked to another website or app? Deleting yourself from a website which you use to log into another website (for example, you may have signed up for other services with your Google or Facebook accounts) may cause trouble for you when attempting to access the linked service. Give yourself a few moments to look in your account settings and profile to see if it lists anything you’ve forgotten about.
- To learn more about why you should avoid linking accounts (prompts such as “Sign in via Google”) read "Lock Your Digital Door".
- What are your rights? If you live in the EU, you’re protected under GDPR, which offers you specific rights that in theory should make it easier for you to request a copy of the data a company has about you, or erasure of your data from their servers (skim the GDPR here or learn specifically about your right to be forgotten). At the time you read this, similar rights may have been enacted where you live, like the CCPA in California.
Can You Delete It?
Did any results come up in your search that you’d prefer not to be on the public internet? Here are the first steps you can take:
- Where is the image or information hosted? Perhaps it’s somewhere you have some control over, like one of your social media accounts. In this case, try simply removing it yourself, overwriting it with a new image or text, or adjusting your privacy settings.
Note: for this or any attempt to alter or remove content from the internet, it might be backed up somewhere. Read on to learn more about this.
- For results you don’t have control over, removal is more difficult but still worth trying.
- If it’s on someone else’s social media page, you could ask them to remove it, or flag it for the platform to remove (where this option exists).
- If it’s on a website, you could ask the website owner to remove or replace it. Just Get My Data and My Data Done Right can walk you through the steps according to the service.
- If you can’t get it taken down, you can ask specific search engines to omit it from results. For example, a search for “EU Privacy Removal Google” should take you to a webform to fill out for Google Search. You may need to wait some time before the image disappears from search results. If you live in the EU, laws support your right to have personal content (images of you, your name, address, etc.) obscured or removed from websites and search results in some circumstances.
If you’ve updated or deleted the picture or page, but it hasn’t updated in the search results, you can submit a request for Google to update the search result: Remove outdated content.
Clean Out Your Closet
If you want to close an account altogether—whether it be your Facebook account or that throwaway account you created to play a mobile game last year—be sure to check the website or app’s help center to figure out their process.
Some websites and apps make it really simple, with a very clear button in your account settings menu, or they ask you to send an email to a certain address. But others require you to go through a longer or more complex process, sometimes through a customer support portal (on a separate website) and filing a report in their system. No matter their process, you should familiarize yourself with it, so you know what to expect and don’t get discouraged.
There’s also a good chance you’ll be prompted to sign in to the website in order to request the closing of your account. This extra step helps to ensure you are are who you say you are. If you forgot your password, go through the steps on the website to request a new one.
And finally, before you close down your account, be sure to unlink your credit card or other payment details, following the appropriate procedure. This may include cancelling your subscription if you have one or resolving any outstanding debts.
If you don’t have control over the webpage and would like help removing the search result, Google has a couple of resources that might help you:
Now that you’re sure of all the considerations above, you’re ready to erase yourself from the website!
Be brief, clear, and polite. Don’t under-estimate the power of being polite. It might be a real person with real feelings answering your email.
Think twice before giving away any more of your data. It makes sense that a website or app will need to verify it’s really you before closing your account, but typically an email with a verification link is enough. If you’re asked to send over a copy of your identification or give them a signature on a form, or any more private information that you never had to give them in the first place when you opened the account, this may very well be a red flag, so proceed cautiously.
- In case you decide the website is not trustworthy or it seems like an unreasonable request, you can report the website to your local GDPR authority (if in the EU) or you can decide whether it’s worth proceeding at all. Maybe it is better for them to have your email and keep filling up your spam box, rather than them having a picture of your ID (in your attempt to close the account).
Keep track of the progress and follow-up. If you haven’t heard a response in a couple of weeks, it doesn’t hurt to gently nudge them.
Once you have confirmation that your account has successfully been closed from the service, if you haven’t already done so, go ahead and uninstall the app.
Search Yourself Again
Now that you’ve made progress on clearing out old traces, conduct the same web search you did at the beginning of this guide to see how your results have changed. In case you don’t see the results updated right away, wait a few days, come back and try again.
The Internet Doesn’t Easily Forget
It’s worth remembering that though the image or text might no longer appear online, it might still be lurking elsewhere:
- On other people’s devices or in their social media accounts.
- On account backups (it can take time for these to be cleared, depending on the platform).
- In the “Cloud” (iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive). When did you last clean up your cloud storage?
Did You Know? You can look for yourself in the archive of the internet: The Wayback Machine (more than 477 billion web pages saved over time). Just put any web page link into the search bar on archive.org/web and check out if it has been preserved. Is the old you still wandering around the internet’s memory?
Don’t Get Bitter, Just Get Better
Sometimes, we get stuck in a seemingly endless technical loop where we can’t delete the item because it’s part of an old account we lost access to, and the platform’s automatic email says that since we’ve authored it ourselves they recommend we delete it, but we can’t because we can no longer access the account... this can feel extremely frustrating.
After taking a deep breath, consider this consolation: the more new content you put out there, which is specifically tailored to your new standards and interests, those old results will likely get pushed further down with time until they become obsolete.
Hooray – you’ve made it through this Data Detox! Hopefully you’re feeling digitally lighter and a little more in control. But perhaps you’re also feeling unsure about how you’ll manage your data in the future. Check out Declutter Your Phone with an App Cleanse for your next steps.
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