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How to protect your privacy and remove data from online services

Leave no trace

Even after a thorough cleaning of your digital life and an overhaul of the security and privacy settings you use, there will inevitably be materials that you want to completely remove from the internet. Stories abound about how difficult this can be.

A ruling by the European Union Court of Justice (ECJ) now gives everyone the right to have any information about them removed from the world's search engines. The so called 'right to be forgotten' is now available to anyone who makes a complaint about any data they see online that is inaccurate or out of date.

If you make a request and state that your information is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant", search engines must remove this information or face a fine. However, you can't simply ask for any information online that you don't like to be removed if it is still in the public interest to find it.

"We need to take into account individuals' right to privacy but if search engines are forced to remove links to legitimate content that is already in the public domain but not the content itself, it could lead to online censorship," said Javier Ruiz, policy director at Open Rights Group. The jury is still out on whether this EU proposal will be workable and also enforceable.

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Find out how difficult it is to delete your accounts

Search yourself

Search for yourself. To gain an insight into how widespread your digital footprint actually is, try searching your name with various spellings. And don't forget to search images as well to see what turns up. If you find any material you want to remove from accounts you have access to this is pretty straightforward. Other materials like blog posts or images will mean asking the site's administrator. Take a look at your digital life with MyLife – you might be very surprised at what you see.

Check your digital footprint regularly. Over time you should see your name and content show up less regularly, as time passes. This usually means Google or the Internet Archive have updated their indexes. However, removing all traces of your digital footprint is very difficult so concentrate on the materials you feel are a priority first. Try JustDeleteMe to see how easy or difficult it is to delete an account from hundreds of services.

You ultimately have to make a choice, as the accounts you close could have an impact on other areas of your digital life. For instance, if you abandon Google+ you then won't be able to comment on YouTube. And if you close your Facebook account you won't be able to use these details to quickly log on to many sites that offer this convenient facility.

Your digital footprint could be large and widespread, but some level of digital exposure is needed to live in today's online environments. It's your choice how much personal information you want to reveal to make that digital life more convenient.