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BLOGInsight: Becoming web invisible

by Randall CraigFiled in: Blog, Data, Insight, Make It Happen Tipsheet, Trust, WebTagged as: ,

With so much discussion about work-life balance, privacy, confidentiality, data hacks, and government snooping, is it any wonder that some people have decided to move off the grid, and become web-invisible?  Or for others to more closely monitor their web profiles, and either partially or completely remove themselves?  Finally, there are others who choose to remove themselves as a matter of principle: they see their personal information as, well, personal – and see corporate or government use of this information as exploitation.

To see for yourself what is stored about you on Google, you can use their poorly documented Google TakeOut.  This “service” allows you to download (but not delete) all of the data that Google has collected.  Facebook has a similar service, accessible from the middle of the an obscure settings page.

While it is almost impossible to remove yourself from the web completely (see www.randallcraig.com/web-sleuthing-and-competitive-archeology) if you do want to reduce your footprint, there are a number of things you can do:

1) Avoid all Social Networks.  Don’t sign up for them if you want to have at least a modicum of control over your data.  If you do have accounts, you can delete them, and also delete the information that is associated with that account.  To delete your Facebook account, for example, start here. For Twitter, start here; Linkedin, start here.  YouTube, a Google service, is a bit different: start here.  Every social network now provides this ability: note that sometimes there is a difference between how each platform defines pausing/deactivating/deleting/etc your account

Unfortunately, following these instructions will not remove 100% of “you”, as shared resources are never deleted.  This means that if someone has tagged you in a photo within Facebook, or has a message from you in their LinkedIn inbox, deleting your account will not delete these items.

2) Remove what you can from Google and other cloud providers.  If you have set up a Google account, within this area you can actually choose what to delete from your Google account.  Of course, if you use Google services (such as gmail, calendaring, etc), Google still has access to your data, customized ads will still be displayed, and your behaviors still tracked.  The same goes for Microsoft cloud services.  Don’t use “rented” cloud services: use your own server to host your email and other cloud capabilities if you really do want them to be private.  (Note: Apple is the only cloud service that claims not to monetize you or your data, and to keep it completely confidential.)

3) Beware the index data funnel.  When data is posted within Social Media, some of this data is indexed by Google, Bing, and all of the public (and private) search engines.  When data is removed from the Social sites, there is no mechanism for it to be removed from the search engines – it is there literally forever.  The saving grace is that as the data ages, it is pushed further and further down in the index, and therefore less likely to be found by a person browsing casually.  In addition to the traditional search engines, the Internet Archive (the Wayback Machine), keeps snapshots of almost every website since the web’s inception.  Even if you were able to scrub Google, a record of your (public) data at a particular time is always available.

4) Use the web anonymously.  Most major browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari, etc) support a mode where you can supposedly go to websites anonymously.  What it really means is that the browser will not keep cookies, history, or other information on the computer that you are using.  To enable this mode, look for menu choices such as private browsing, inPrivate, and Incognito mode.

Note, however, that this will not keep your identity private from the search engines, websites that you visit, advertisers, social media sites, etc.  To browse anonymously requires three things: (1) the installation of browser plug-ins that disable third party tracking technologies, (2) a change of behavior to use search sites such as www.duckduckgo.com which explicitly don’t track, and (3) the use of proxy servers or VPNs to ensure that “regular” sites see you as truly anonymous.  One way to surf the web without leaving a trail to who you are is Anonymouse.org. For even greater certainty, don’t use a standard browser, but use TOR, which completely anonymizes you, your location, and what you are doing.

5) Beware of the mobile connection.  Unlike a traditional browser, your telephone has a definitive link to you: it is almost impossible (without using proxies and VPNs) to be truly anonymous using a mobile phone – either with data, or with voice.  If an App is isn’t tracking you, the operating system is.  And if that isn’t tracking you, your location is being tracked by your mobile provider by triangulating cell phone towers.

6) Turn location tracking off.  Many Android apps track your location at all times; iPhone/iPad apps do so only if you explicitly give them permission to do so.  This data is then married with external sources to build an exceptionally detailed profile of you and your habits.  There are exceptionally few reasons for an app to track your location unless it is being used at that point in time, and even then, it might not be necessary.

7) Do not use Alexa or Google Assistant/Nest Hub products.  These contribute to an exceptionally detailed profile of you, all of which can be used by advertisers (and possibly others.)

THIS WEEK’S ACTION PLAN

While not everyone is keen on removing themselves from the web, there is a definite sensitivity to it: from lawmakers who are increasingly adding more stringent privacy legislation, to users who are becoming increasingly cynical. As marketers, we must recognize that helping our target users achieve what they want is the only way they will return the favor and help us achieve what we want.  Creepy data-mining, surveillance capitalism, email spam, and other non-friendly activities all kill trust and do more harm than good. This week, look at how your organization uses data, and decide whether you are being transparent enough with your users.  And at the same time, make sure that the balance of utility clearly falls in your users’ favor.

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