12 February 2015

Author Online: Protecting Your Personal Data

Constant vigilance!
Knife Dream (c) fomo of iStock.
One of the most time-consuming aspects of being an author online is the monitoring of your reputation and privacy. You are promoting yourself as a product, but you also have to safeguard what kind of information gets released into the world.

You want to be discoverable, but you don't want to be discovered...right?

What I've always found to be particularly creepy are the websites that compile every piece of public information about you and assemble it into a single, easy-to-view profile. It's not just, "We found XXX," but, "here's XXX's phone numbers, their current and prior addresses, their email addresses, a photo of their house on Google Maps Street View (so you know exactly where they live), all of their social media profiles, their political affiliations, arrest records, yearly income, and every member of their family." 

As any of these websites will tell you, what they are doing is not illegal. This is all publicly available information. They're just making it unbelievably easy for you to be found. And if you're working on building a name for yourself as a public figure (artists often have to), you want to make sure there's still parts of yourself that remain private. 

Over the years since I've started blogging and actively marketed myself as a writer, I've worked with reputation management programs, which are nice, but cost money. As a cheap alternative (and for my own peace of mind), I've contacted various companies and filled out numerous opt-out requests to make sure my info can't be easily assembled into one of these "here's EVERYTHING you need to stalk this person!" types of websites. I thought I'd share how to take care of this information with all of you. 

Google Maps/Street View

When Google Maps takes photos of an area, they automatically blur people's faces and license plates of any car that pops up in the photo.

But what if you don't want your house to be seen?

Google cannot remove a photo of your house from Google Street View. The best compromise they offer is to blur the crap out of it. In the end, I'm not sure how much this really accomplishes, but I guess if you want to remove particular details, you can request them to blur it by finding the image of your house on Street View, then clicking "Report a Problem," which will direct you to the request form.

"People Locator" Websites

Here are the links that take you directly to each company's Opt-Out or "Remove Me" processes. Not every company provides a consistent way to remove your information, so read the fine print to see what's required of you. Some companies make you create a free account in order to request removal. Some require you to fax a copy of your ID with photo and license plate number omitted; some will not remove your name from the listing but remove all of your available personal info. I've had to do each of these types of opt-outs, and I know they are legitimate because I've been through the process before. 

You may have to submit more than one request to the same company if you've ever changed addresses, changed names (or have had your name misspelled), changed phone numbers, and changed or had multiple email addresses, or pop under multiple listings within the same site. There's really no such thing as "search one and done" for a lot of these types of websites.

Because these sites are aware that people want their information removed, they will have programs like "Manage my Reputation" or similar...don't be tricked into signing up for these types of programs--some will cost money while others are just a pitch to get you to maintain an active account with them. (MyLife is an example of a site that has remarketed itself as a "profile remover" engine. According to their terms, you can't actually remove your profile from My Life, even while it offers to remove your profile from other sites. I don't think this is exactly true, but I haven't found clear answers on this.)
The task is a bit daunting...
Stress While Working Late at Night (c) Alvarez of iStock

Remember, there's no such thing as a "full removal." 

Think of it more like the suppression of data. This process may feel like a battle of attrition at times, but if you have the patience, feel free to dive in.

Best of luck to you on this!


Check out other articles in the Author Online series:

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