You’re constantly being watched on the internet and your personal data is constantly being mined. Is there a way to have it removed?
There are plenty of legitimate reasons why folks might use a people-search website like Whitepages.com or Spokeo.
Maybe you’re organizing a 20-year high school reunion and want to find email addresses for lost classmates. Maybe you’re meeting up with a blind date from Tinder and want to make sure the cute guy in the pic doesn’t have a criminal record. Or maybe you’re an investigative journalist trying to contact a hard-to-reach source.
Or maybe, just maybe, you’re a creep. And the reason you want that personal information is to stalk an ex, make harassing phone calls to an adversary, or "dox" a public figure by releasing their home address and phone number to an army of online trolls.
For $10 or less, anyone with a credit card can log in to one of hundreds of people-search websites and download a detailed background report on just about any other person in the United States. Those reports will include phone numbers, email addresses, home addresses, the names of spouses and family relations, criminal records and other public records like marriage records and bankruptcies.
What if you don’t want that information out there? Is there a way to delete your information from people-search websites for privacy or security reasons? The answer, we found out, is a resounding (and disappointing) "sort of."
What Are People-Search Sites and How Do They Get Your Data?
Well-known websites like Spokeo, Whitepages.com and PeopleFinder make up only a small fraction of the hundreds of people-search websites out there (according to a list from privacy company Kanary).
People-search websites are a type of "data broker," a business that collects and sells personal information. The data broker industry is sprawling and largely unregulated, and includes powerful players like Google and credit-reporting companies like Experian.
People-search websites get their information in a variety of ways. Some of it is publicly available information like real estate transactions, voter registrations, marriage licenses and divorce decrees, unsealed lawsuits and sex offender registrations.
Some information is purchased from other data brokers, like lead-generation companies that collect personal data through sweepstakes entries, surveys and mailing lists. People-search sites will also scour social media websites like Facebook and LinkedIn, or buy the data directly from those companies (check your privacy settings!).
"To me, the thing that’s the most bizarre is that they’re selling or giving away your information without your knowledge," says Yael Grauer, an investigative reporter with Consumer Reports who covers digital privacy and security. "There’s this database where I can look up somebody’s name, address and everybody they live with."
Deleting Your Information the DIY Way
What’s most frustrating to privacy advocates like Grauer is that there is no federal law or single online form you can fill out — like the National Do Not Call Registry — to delete your information from people-search websites. (California is the only state with a law that empowers its residents to demand that companies disclose and delete their personal data, but even that law excludes publicly available information.)
Instead, the only surefire way to opt out of people-search websites is to contact each one, website by website.
"Technically, none of them have to allow you to opt out," says Grauer. "They do that as a ‘courtesy,’ but they make it annoying and routinely change the process for doing it."
As a public service, Grauer maintains an online document called the Big Ass Data Broker Opt-Out List, which is a continuously updated list of every major people-search website and their process for deleting your information. Some have straightforward online forms; others require multiple proofs of identity. Grauer tries to make it easier by identifying the "high priority" brokers (marked with a skull and crossbones).
She also shares some helpful tips. For starters, search your name on each people-search website before you contact them. By some miracle, you may not have a profile on that particular site so you can skip it (and avoid sending your personal data to a potentially shady operation).
Also, if they ask for a pic of your ID to prove your identity, use your phone’s markup tools to black out your driver’s license number or Social Security number.
Paying Someone to Delete Your Data
If you’re serious about scrubbing your data from every major people-search website, the entire process can take between six business days and up to two weeks to complete. That’s a big time commitment. And worse, says Grauer, you should really repeat the process every six months because automated data mining software will continue to resurface your information.
"I hate that people have to do this," says Grauer, "because it’s so much more arduous and time consuming than it has to be."
But can’t someone else do this for us?
The answer is yes. There are plenty of services that say they will scrub your personal information from the internet, but in Grauer’s experience they’re not all created equal. Grauer personally recommends Kanary and DeleteMe, which offer subscription packages that continuously monitor and delete your data. The cost is roughly $90 to $130 per year for an individual.
Now That’s Cool
Remember the printed copies of the Yellow Pages (business listing) and White Pages (residential) that used to show up every year? You can still access those online by looking up your local city or town.