Do you remember the first time you went online? Was it to get a free email account? Did you want to read the news? Was it to do some shopping? On that day, you started leaving a digital footprint of personal information behind you. Since then, that trail has been growing until today. Should you mind? Since you are reading this article, you probably want to delete your personal information from the online world.
The internet’s thirst for personal user information has grown out of control, and it’s a threat to your privacy. It can even turn into physical danger if you’re unfortunate enough.
Much of your personal information is out there, and it’s not a result of you watching your favorite video content on movie streaming websites or other random online activities. Instead, it’s a deliberate and systematic process in which data brokers constantly sweep the web and the public records to build your profile and sell it.
This article will explain why having all this information about you online harms your privacy and security, why it happens, and how to stop it yourself or with professional help.
Pro tip: The most effective way to keep your private data and information off the internet is to get a professional service; we highly recommend Incogni. There are other ways you can use too, as covered in detail in this inclusive guide below, but please note they are time-intensive. You should also do them every few months because the internet isn’t static; it continues to accumulate your information as long as you use it. Hence using a professional service might be worthwhile for most users.
How did my personal information end up on the internet?
As mentioned, you have been spilling the beans about yourself since you became an internet user. However, it’s not all your fault. Personal information is the internet’s favorite currency and can surface in several ways.
- Data breaches. Hackers often manage to break into confidential databases to steal them. The information they steal includes personally identifying information, and a black market is waiting to buy it.
- Data brokers. These legitimate companies collect all the information they can get by any legal means possible. They dig as deep as possible into the government’s public records and combine them with online sources of information. Then, they manage to put together a profile for each individual that they can sell to any interested party.
- Social media and blogs. So many of us share so much personal information on our social media accounts, such as Instagram, that a skilled criminal would need nothing more than that to commit fraud. It’s all public and very personal.
- Web browsing. Web servers use “cookies” to track you while browsing the web. The cookies give away your browsing history, which allows advertisers to customize the ads they show you and increase the chances of getting a click.
What are data broker sites?
Data broker websites are vast depositories of personal information. You can use them to search for information on somebody. The site will give you a few pieces of basic information for free. But then, if you want the complete profile with more details, you’ll have to buy it.
These businesses search high and low for as much data as possible and create a consistent picture of each individual. Their sources include online public records, information from social media, websites and mobile apps you use, and even commercial loyalties when they work together with retailers. They can also buy info from other data brokers. The result is that these corporations know billions of people with fantastic depth.
One of these brokers could know your home’s price, your education history, where you’ve lived and with whom, your record as a river, your political preferences, health history and insurance details, phone number, physical address, social security number, and ID details. If you are into fitness apps, they could also have a good idea about your physical condition and training habits.
Who buys information from data brokers?
Data brokers have a broad spectrum of clients, including legitimate businesses and criminals.
Let’s start with the legal use cases. Advertisers use this information to customize their ad campaigns. Using things like shopping histories, personal interests, and even political activities or interests, they can come up with particular ads that can catch your eye online. This publicity has a better chance of getting your attention and making you follow its links.
Background checks are another legal use case. Law enforcement, reporters, and potential employers often need to run a background check on an individual. So a data broker’s report is a great starting point. The brokers already did the research and the heavy lifting, thus saving their clients a lot of time, energy, and resources.
Then there’s the fishy side of things. Digital criminals can also access personal information on data broker websites. By gathering accurate information from several sources, including the dark web in the case of criminals, they can accurately characterize their potential victims. Then they can open accounts in your name, have a contract signed by “you,” use your social security number, file a tax return, and even transact on your bank accounts. This information has sometimes led to victims being stalked at home or work and suffering from constant harassment.
In digital security, we often deal with risks that remain isolated from a user’s physical safety. But the excess of personal information available online about an individual is not limited in this way. Remember that one of the typical pieces of personal information available with data brokers is a physical address. For example, in 2014, the Gamergate harassment campaign happened. It forced Zoe Quinn, a video game developer, to leave her house as the Gamergate terrorists started to post pictures of her living space along with death threats.
And, please, do not ask yourself, “But how likely is this to happen to me?” These are the famous last words you find in every case of a severe security crisis, digital and otherwise. It’s likely enough for you to do something about it.