Can anyone ever really scrub their online presence?
Christine Blasey Ford knew her life would be turned upside down when she decided to identify herself as the woman accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were teenagers, so, her friends said, she deleted all of her social media accounts.
Despite those efforts, the Palo Alto University psychology professor’s fears have come true since she came forward over the weekend: Her lawyers say she’s facing harassment and death threats. Supporters and opponents have found pictures of her on the web and converted them into memes. And her Palo Alto home address was tweeted, forcing her to move out.
In the age of the internet, what’s to keep the same thing from happening to any victim of sexual harassment or assault who decides to come forward? Can they — or anyone — completely erase their online presences to protect themselves?
“The extremely short and brutal answer is no,” said Gennie Gebhart, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She does research and advocacy for issues that include consumer privacy, surveillance and security.
“The all-or-nothing approach is not generally useful,” she said.
Sure, there are paid services that can “delete” you from the internet and that might work for a little while. But even if people were to spend time and money trying to erase their online presence, it could all be undone in an instant because the data brokers of the world are “constantly repopulating,” Gebhart said.
Instead, Gebhart said the best most people can do is try to get a handle on what’s online, minimize the personal information that’s out there and do their best to take control of it.
They could start with Google, where almost everyone begins their online searches, and check out its removal policies. Then, delete Facebook. And opt out of sharing personal information on many other websites, one by one.
Most people don’t have the time or know-how to do that, which is where services such as Reputation Defender come in.
“Do (people) know everywhere to look, do they have time, do they want to go through the cumbersome opt-out procedures?” said Rich Matta, CEO of the Redwood City company, which offers services ranging from $99 to $1,000 a year. “We currently track 73 people search and data brokers.”
Yet, even he acknowledged that “it is not possible to completely scrub yourself from the internet.” After all, publicly available information — such as addresses, family members’ names, birth and marriage certificates, mortgages, liens and voting records — abound. That’s the bread and butter of data brokers, such as Whitepages, Spokeo, Intelius and others.
In Ford’s case, a friend told this news organization, she “shut down her social media,” but that didn’t stop at least a few people from tweeting her address. Twitter said Thursday it has suspended accounts related to Ford’s “doxing,” which involves the posting of personal information.
“I do definitely worry that this (case) will have a chilling effect” on other victims of sexual assault or harassment coming forward, said Leigh Honeywell, co-founder of San Francisco startup Tall Poppy, which aims to establish online-harassment protection as an employee benefit. For more than a decade, the security engineer has worked with tech companies and hundreds of individuals who have experienced online harassment, she said.
In the past year, she said, she has counseled about a dozen people, some of whom decided not to blow the whistle because of security concerns.
“The important thing, in addition to mundane digital hygiene, is having a support network ready to go,” Honeywell said. “Tell them ‘I’m about to go through something really difficult.’ Think through who those people are in your life, and build your ‘team you.’ “
Minimizing online presence
You can ask Google to remove sensitive personal information, such as bank account numbers, or a nude image or video of you, from its search results — but not much else. See its removal policy for more information.
You can deactivate or delete your account. When you deactivate, you have the option of reactivating it later. When you request that your account be deleted, it and all the posts and photos you’ve uploaded will be gone after a few days. The company notes that friends still could see messages you might have sent them while your account was active.
Once you deactivate your account, your name, username and profile will go away unless you change your mind and reactivate it within 30 days.
Closing your account means permanently deleting your profile, connections, recommendations and messages. It’s possible to reopen it within 20 days, but recommendations and group memberships go away immediately.
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and StopDataMining.me
From birth records to bankruptcy reports to Social Security records, these sites gather data brokers’ names and links to their policies in one place. You then can try to delete your information from each one or pay a service to do it for you.