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September 25, 2014 at 7:13 pm #8225Anonymous
Can I get sites like Facebook and Google to remove all my personal data?
The problem is not personal accounts, it’s the tracking data and metadata that users do not freely contribute.
This is a complicated question, because several different types of information may be involved.
First, there’s private data that belongs to you, such as your email and photos.
Second, there is data that belongs to you but that you have published on, say, Twitter or Facebook or a bulletin boards like our Forum.
Third, there is commercial data, of the sort that you create when buying things online.
Fourth, there is metadata that you don’t know about, which tracks your browsing habits, location, and so on.
Deleting private data isn’t usually a problem, and sites like WikiHow http://www.wikihow.com/Main-Page provide illustrated guides to deleting Facebook, Google, Google+, Yahoo and other accounts. These companies will actually delete your data but it may take a while, so you can log on to Facebook after a week or two and still rescue a deleted account. It depends how widely your data is distributed (it’s not all in one file), and the length of time between file purges. However, your data may never be removed from old Google and Facebook backups, especially if they’re on tape. It would cost too much.
Also, you must not be using your account. Even if you log out of the Facebook or Google websites, you may still have apps on a PC, tablet or phone (Instagram, Spotify etc) that are logged on using your account details.
Before closing an account, you should download backup copies of all your data, or transfer it to a different service. For example, you can download all your Gmail data to a desktop email program such as Thunderbird, or get Outlook.com to collect it, or both. If you’ve shopped on Amazon and eBay, bought insurance online, booked holidays etc, your email contains information that you may not want to lose.
Note that deleting an account may involve lots of different data. With Google, for example, you may have contact and calendar information, documents in Google Drive, posts and photos in G+ and Picasa, money in a Google Wallet, YouTube comments, reviews on Google Play, blogs on Blogger, and the data and apps on your Android phone. Your Google Dashboard has a list.
You can delete a single service such as Gmail or G+, but Google will still have a lot of information about you. Even if you quit Gmail, Google will probably still get copies of most of your emails, because you’ll still be writing to people who are on Gmail.
Google has a good FAQ: Download your data, and Google Takeout, while Facebook offers Downloading Your Info.
Published data harder to remove. If you had a debate with half a dozen people, you can delete your bits, but that may destroy the conversation. What about messages where someone else has quoted something you said? You can’t make other people delete their data. This is why Facebook would rather you deactivated your profile instead of deleting it: it will leave all the old Likes, conversations and photos in place.
Facebook, Google and Twitter let you delete whatever you like from your own account, but things that have been copied or quoted may survive elsewhere. It may have been harvested by search engines or the data-mining companies that hoover up whatever they can find. Otherwise, the Internet Archive is backing up the web but not Facebook, and the Smithsonian is keeping a database of tweets.
Commercial and transactional data
Commercial data can be deleted, but that may not be advisable. You can delete your Amazon account, but then you lose your purchasing history and will have a tough time trying to return anything or get a refund. If you delete an Apple ID account, you may lose your apps, and you may not be able to play copy-protected downloads or move them to another device. I’d expect commercial transactions on iTunes, Google Play, Facebook and other services to create similar problems.
And if you delete your account, you can’t expect merchants to delete their sales records etc. It’s their data, not yours.
Tracking and metadata
Finally, there’s the data that companies collect about the things that you do online, including visits to websites. Google, Facebook and other companies hold a lot of metadata about, for example, who your friends are and which ones you contact most often, the times of day you’re active, how many devices you use (and what they are), and the locations from which you log on. All this reveals a lot about you.
Metadata may extend well beyond a particular service, especially if you use a Google, Facebook, Twitter or other account to log on to different services or leave comments on other web sites. This is why I disabled Facebook Connect and use Google products inside “private browsing” (aka “porn mode”) windows.
Internet companies also track you by putting cookies on your PC, browser fingerprinting, “canvas fingerprinting” (using the browser’s Canvas programming interface to draw invisible images to create unique identification numbers) and so on. A typical website may have from 20 to 100 trackers including ClickTale, Disqus, DoubleClick (Google), Facebook Connect, Google Adsense. Google AdWords, Google Analytics, Google Friend Connect, Google+ 1, Microsoft Atlas, Omniture and Visual Revenue. Companies also track you via your smartphone’s apps and Wi-Fi connections.
Tracking is used to create profiles to target you with advertising. That’s what pays for “free” services. As security guru Bruce Schneier has observed: “Surveillance is the business model of the internet.”
Today, the problem isn’t your personal accounts, it’s the tracking data and metadata that you did not freely contribute, that was collected mostly without your knowledge, and that may well be traded between companies. This is why you should use private browsing features, Firefox rather than Chrome, add-ons like Adblock Edge and Ghostery, and VPN (virtual private network) services.
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