With more and more employers using search engines to find out about potential new employees, it is good to know in advance what personal information can be found. The last thing a jobseeker needs is some aspect of their private life affecting the chances of them getting a job, but with the rise of social networks in the last few years, people need to be proactive and take control of their digital footprint. Here are a few methods for doing just that.
Map your footprint
Before you can start reducing your digital footprint, you should know what it currently looks like. Make a list of all the social networking sites that you've signed up for, any websites where you've had an account in the past, and all the usernames or aliases you have used on the web. If you are like me and keep archives of your old emails, this task is made far easier, since you can search for registration details. If not, try to remember as many as you can; you'll often find other accounts later on.
We've probably all typed our names into Google at some point to see what comes up, but have you ever really explored past the first few pages? Have you ever tried the same search on Yahoo! or Bing? Using your name, other personal details, and the information from your list, do a few searches on multiple search engines and you'll get a good idea of how big or small your digital footprint is.
Take control of your privacy
Once your footprint is mapped, you can start to clean up the privacy leaks. Perhaps you found a few Facebook posts that were available to the public, or maybe a few photos that you'd rather not have for everyone to see. Luckily, a lot of the larger social networks have very good privacy controls, so you can easily change a few settings and hide things that you'd rather keep private. On other sites that lack privacy controls, you may be able to actually delete the information by blanking it out.
Attacking the problem at the source is a step in the right direction, but it won't remove the information if it is cached in a search engine. Eventually, the information will disappear as the search engine realises you've removed it, but this can take weeks or months. Google provides an interactive solution, allowing anyone with a Google account to request the deletion of a search result or cached item. To my knowledge, other search engines only provide this service to website owners, so you may have to send a few emails.
Dealing with site owners
If you've found some data and it can't be removed, or still exists in a search engine cache, your best bet is to contact the owner of the website and request that they take action. Often you'll find a contact form or email address on the site itself, but if not, there are various tools online to find out who controls the domain name. Send a polite email explaining your situation and request that they remove the data. If you've already removed the data and want it removed from search engines, you can request that they add it to their robots.txt file, which is read by search engines and can be used to block access to content.
Other things to consider
Doing all this may sound like a lot of effort, and it is. I've spend many hours cleaning up my digital footprint, and I continue to check it every few weeks to make sure that what I've removed hasn't made a surprise reappearance. If you don't have the time to do this yourself, you can use Abine's DeleteMe service, which will try to remove your personal information from various websites for a small fee.
To stop this kind of information appearing in the first place, you should be wary of what you post online, especially if you are doing it under your own name or an alias that can be traced to you. If you are posting under your own name, make sure what you write doesn't reflect badly on you. In fact, it may be beneficial to start using your real name more often in this way, so that the first few pages of search results for your name are fully under your control.
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