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How to protect your privacy and remove data from online services

Google laptop

How much time do you spend connected to the internet? If you're a message junkie, YouTube addict, or use the web for business, you are leaving tracks that can be followed. We all have what has been dubbed a 'digital footprint' with some being larger than others.

The question being asked today is how is this footprint affecting our privacy? And when we want to remove content, why is this so difficult, as many celebrities have discovered over the last few years?

In 1995 the EU introduced privacy legislation that defined 'personal data' as any information that could identify a person, directly or indirectly. Since then the use of digital devices, and the data they allow us all to use, has increased the complexity of that definition.

And the amounts of data are huge. IDC states that the amount of data created in 2011 had reached 1.8 zettabytes or 1.8 trillion gigabytes (which is enough data to fill 57.5 billion 32GB Apple iPads). By 2020 this is expected to reach a server-straining 44 zettabytes.

Intel infographic

What happens in an internet minute? [Intel]

Data peddlers

And if you thought these numbers only relate to big business, think again. We have all become massive creators of data: a typical office worker in the US produces about 5,000 megabytes of data a day, which includes downloading movies, sending emails, uploading photos – the list goes on. In every minute of every day:

  • 4 million searches on Google are performed
  • 240 million emails are sent
  • 72 hours of video are uploaded
  • 2.5 million pieces of content are shared on Facebook
  • 277,000 tweets are sent

What is worrying is that all this data isn't anonymous. The opposite is true, as each piece of data within your digital footprint can be analysed to understand who you are, what you like and, of course, what you might want to buy in the future. And the future will become even more data-rich, as wearable technologies become commonplace – each collecting data about your health and buying habits.

As the Internet Society points out: "If a service provider holds account information for you, such as your email address, payment details, purchase history or other personal information, the cookie links everything you do with this information. The concept of linkability is a key one in any analysis of online privacy, because linkability does more than almost anything else to erode users' ability to keep personal data within a single context, and thus to manage their own privacy."

We are now living in the era of big data. With masses of personal information about us all swimming around the internet, big data can pull all this information together to form a surprisingly accurate profile of any given person. The more you use online services the more data is available, and therefore there are more opportunities to make your digital profile more accurate. Ubisoft's recent ad campaign for the game Watch Dogs made for unsettling viewing when users found an uncanny accuracy when the app interrogated their Facebook profiles.

Reduce your footprint

So, what can be done to reduce your digital footprint, or at least make the data we all create more anonymous? And do we really need to worry that much about all this?

It's really a double-edged sword: on the one hand if you tweet you are in a specific location, this tells everyone you tweeted that your home is potentially empty. On the other hand, to make use of fast checkout on your favourite websites, the site needs to know it's you returning so it can retrieve your address and payment details.

Before you can reduce your digital footprint, understanding how far this extends is a good idea. Me & My Shadow offers just this service. They also offer a number of applications to improve your overall digital security.

Minimising the size of your digital footprint can be achieved easily if you take the time to do some housekeeping. There are a variety of techniques you can use to reduce the digital trail that you leave:

1. Check all your privacy settings

Go to each of the websites you use most often and see what level of privacy you have set. This is especially important for social networks. And if you have included personal information on your profiles, consider removing, reducing or hiding this.

2. Remove old accounts

Search for your name on Google's image search. The image search you do may reveal some old accounts you had forgotten about. You may not use them, but the internet never forgets. If you can't delete these old accounts update them with a false name, email address and blank image. Google will eventually index these changes, which should mean they are removed from your digital footprint.

3. Unsubscribe from mailing lists

We all sign up for hundreds of newsfeeds and email newsletters, but often only read a fraction of these. Unsubscribe from the ones you don't read will reduce the data available for personal profiling.


Use a disposable email address to limit your digital footprint

4. Register with a different email address

If you have to give an email address to a site for registration, have a secondary email address that you use for just this purpose. This will keep your personal inbox clean, but also misdirect anyone that is using this data for profiling. You could use a disposable email address from services such as Mailinator or AirMail.

5. Use stealth mode when browsing

The browser you use can also have its security and privacy settings tweaked to make your use of the internet more anonymous. The Chrome browser has Incognito Mode. Internet Explorer includes InPrivate Browsing. Firefox users have Private Window. And Safari users can also switch on private browsing from their browser's security settings.

6. Think before you post

A great deal of the personal information that is now collected comes from social media. Being a little more restrained with your use of these networks will reduce the quantity of data that can be collected about you.

7. Tor browsing

The Tor internet browser offers high levels of anonymity, as it bounces all of your browser usage across several servers around the world making it impossible for anyone to track your internet sessions.

8. Use anti-tracking tools

There are a number of additional tools you can use to mask your internet browsing including Disconnect, Ghostery and DoNotTrackMe.