This week I had a request for privacy information that went something like this:
I am starting a new project and expect people to search my name online. There are search results that give personal information about me, including my address, phone number, and weight. How can I get rid of those search results?
The first thing to understand about this topic is frustrating. Most US States require information like home ownership to be public record. This made some sense when we were a frontier nation with people shooting it out over land ownership issues. In case of land dispute, people could get on their horses and ride to the county courthouse to check the deed. Today that same information remains legally mandated as public. For-profit companies gather public information about you, and they sell that information. There is not much to be done. You can ask a given company to please not list details online but they can, and often do, decline to change anything. Even if you succeed with one company, there other companies selling the very same information. Companies are able to suppress this information, and do so for citizens with valid restraining orders or members of law enforcement. There is no technical problem here. Rather it is an unfortunate mix of public policy and outdated laws.
Public information is hard to fix, but much of what is available when you search for your own name is not legally mandated to be public. The situation only gets mildly better. Over one hundred data brokers buy, sell, and combine your personal information. It is likely you have never heard of these companies and have no business relationships with them, but they have heard of you. ProPublica offers a clear introduction to data brokers. A few data brokers will allow you to opt out of various uses of your data. However, often you cannot opt out of future data collection, and often data brokers will not erase the information they already hold about you. Even for such a tepid opt out, data brokers may require you to authenticate with them by providing yet more personal information. While I do not know of data brokers asking you to prove who you are by faxing your driver's license, and then using that driver's licence data in other ways including selling it, the possiblity of re-using authentication data remains a persistent concern. Another trouble is figuring out who all of those data brokers are. For a fantastic discussion of trying to do just that, I recommend Julia Angwin's book Dragnet Nation. We are hosting a free book talk on May 6, 2014 - please join us. In her book, Julia details using two commercial tools to opt out of data brokers. She finds the tools do not work perfectly. The problem is that some data brokers ignore all opt outs that come from the commercial companies on the grounds that the data brokers cannot be absolutely sure the request is actually valid. A founder of a commercial opt out company believes this is a cynical way for data brokers to ensure you have to find every single data broker to request an opt out, rather than be able to opt out from one place. Even though commercial opt out services are not as effective as one might hope, they do at least reduce how much data about you flies around. One option is Catalog Choice, which has been purchased by a larger company since I last spoke with them. To address issues with search results specifically, some companies sell reputation management services.
For the original question it may be sufficient to hide information by burying it several pages into search results. Few people click through five pages of results, so getting private information demoted in search rankings can help. One approach is to join popular websites like Facebook and LinkedIn. They will show up in online searches before many other results. It sounds utterly strange to suggest joining social media for privacy, but if all you do is sign up with your real name and no additional information, this may actually help you assert control over what information is readily found about you.
If you have other tips, please leave them in the comments thread below!