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Erasing your digital footprint from the Internet is a difficult task.
Thursday, August 5, 2010

Net almost never forgets

SAN FRANCISCO – It’s been almost two decades since mainstream users began trekking into the World Wide Web. Now, several years into that excursion, many are taking a long hard look at the trail they’ve left behind.

The idea of tracing our steps through the digital jungle and departing it like we were never there seems too ambitious, almost unfathomable. But what would it take for an individual to erase his digital footprint? Is it even possible to exit the Internet?

The short answer is no.

Every time we go online to sign up for a new service, buy a T-shirt, update our social networks, send an e-mail or use a search engine, we leave behind data. Details we share through offline actions like filling out a credit card application can also squirrel their way into the Internet. Information collected through cookies – bits of code that remember a user’s interactions with a Web site – can be stitched together to create a thorough profile.

Then there’s information about us that was beyond our control even before the Internet. Public records on government Web sites, for instance, would be next to impossible to remove.

“There are lots of ways for you to inadvertently send your information to the Internet,” said Ryan Calo, a residential fellow at Stanford University Law School’s Center for Internet and Society. “It surprises me, even as a person who has worked in this field for a number of years, how easy it is for information to flow from one point to another.”

The information is used in different ways. Google, for instance, uses it for advertising and to constantly improve its search algorithms. Services that search for people cater to Internet users wanting to learn more about potential love interests, or find old classmates or distant relatives. Ad networks, marketers and other online databases sell and use the information they collect to deliver tailored advertisements.

To deal with the overwhelming endeavor of removing online information, people can turn to companies like ReputationDefender in Redwood City, Calif.

Through several partnerships and agreements with the Direct Marketing Association and some of the best-known people-search services – like Spokeo, WhitePages and PeopleFinders – ReputationDefender can remove personal information from 80 percent to 90 percent of all online commercial databases, CEO Michael Fertik said.

“We have been working on this for several years, and it’s not yet possible to get out 100 percent,” Fertik said. “Erasing your entire digital footprint right now is impossible.”

ReputationDefender’s services can cost as little as $9.95 or as much as $10,000, depending on what it does to erase online tracks.

Given enough time and patience, of course, a person could try to do it on his own. But it would be no walk in the park.

The most likely first step would be a long, scrutinizing walk down memory lane to identify every Internet company that might hold personal information about its users. Companies like Google, Facebook, Netflix, eBay and Amazon are some of the first to come to mind, but every other site a person has used to purchase something, every service he has signed up for and every service agreement he has consented to would have to be included.

More challenging would be finding all the companies and organizations most Internet users don’t even know hold personal information about them. Besides the marketers and online databases, one would have to ask the Internet Archive -- a nonprofit group that keeps permanent records of Web sites and other digital content -- to remove any personal information it has, and try his luck with the Library of Congress, which a few months ago acquired Twitter’s entire archive of tweets since March of 2006.

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has a list of data brokers that can serve as a guide for anyone looking to leave the Internet.

To date, the group has listed 115 online data vendors, almost half of which offer some sort of full or partial opt-out option, sometimes only under certain conditions.

And therein lies the next dilemma: Even if a person were capable of identifying every single company and organization that stores data about him, they might be reticent to help. “Their initial objection was uniform. They felt the data was their asset,” he said.

One small piece of good news is that there are some tools that might help people to erase their Internet history.

Although many social networks will keep a copy of every comment or photo users have ever posted, services like Web 2.0 Suicide Machine offer to streamline the erasure of your digital content from sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Meanwhile, some advertising networks and marketers like Lotame, BlueKai, eXelate, Bizo, Safecount and Rubicon Project allow you to opt out of having personal data collected. Search engines like Google offer similar ad opt-out options.

Finally, there are a few desperate, drastic measures. Calo said an individual could quit the Internet altogether and let the information about him grow obsolete (old information ranks lower in search results lists), or do things like changing his name or moving to a different address that would render online information irrelevant.

Whatever the solution, it will be imperfect if the person continues to make purchases through the Internet or use his real name to interact with friends and family.

“Unless there is a real change to the architecture (of the Internet) and the law, this is the cost of being in an information-intensive society,” Calo said.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.