As more of our social lives, shopping sprees and dating misadventures take place online, we leave behind, purposely or not, a growing supply of personal information.
Marketers, employers, suitors and even thieves and stalkers are piecing together mosaics of who we are. Even when it is accurate, it may not present a pretty picture.
Snoops may find in blog posts or Facebook comments evidence of your political views, health challenges, office tribulations and party indiscretions, any of which could hurt your chances of admission to school, getting or keeping a job, or landing a date. Many privacy experts worry that companies will use this data against users, perhaps to deny insurance coverage or assign a higher interest rate on a loan.
If you want to try to manage privacy, the obvious first place to start is with the search engines Google, Bing and Yahoo, exactly where other people will most likely go to check you out. Run keyword searches of your name, address, phone numbers and other identifying data and see what turns up. Don't stop after the first few pages of search results.
Also look for online accounts you opened but don't use anymore, especially on social networks or dating sites where you would have provided extensive personal information.
If you're daunted by this research job, there are companies willing to do the work for you. The privacy software startup Abine charges $99 a year for quarterly reports detailing the information available about you online.
First, delete anything too valuable on social networks like Facebook. A full birth date or home address can be used to steal your identity. Personal details can be cloaked using privacy settings that make them available only to friends. Also remove or deactivate social networking accounts you no longer use.
If someone else posted information you want removed, you'll have to reach out to that person. A friend on Facebook may agree to delete an unflattering photo of you. But getting an online publisher or a data broker to remove content, especially if it's truthful and legal, can be tricky. Asking nicely and explaining why often works.
Many data brokers will let you opt out of their databases. Information that is taken down should drop out of the search engines within a few weeks. If it doesn't, submit a request for it to be removed. Google provides instructions, but without action from the site owner, Google rarely removes content that's not illegal.
Pros can help consumers cope. The best known is Reputation.com, which charges $99 a year for its MyPrivacy service to identify, remove and keep your information off the Web and out of commercial databases. Abine sells an a la carte service called DeleteMe for removing specific pieces of content.