I tried to unsubscribe from the internet. Here’s what I learned

SocialProof Security CEO Rachel Tobac uses social engineering to hack CNN tech reporter Donie O'Sullivan's accounts.

MyLife collects huge amounts of public data to create basic reports and “reputation scores” on millions of people in the United States, all available for those willing to pay a monthly subscription. On it, I found a sometimes inaccurate but disturbing amount of personal information about my life: my birthday and my hometown; my previous assignment (although curiously not the current one); a list of people with whom “Seth has relationships”, including the names of both my parents, each linked to their profile pages with even more data. Everything there in one place waiting to be discovered.

When I called the site, a customer service representative pointed out that the information does not come from MyLife, but rather from all the “interwebs”. After a few back and forth, the rep agreed to delete my profile page. I felt victorious – until two hours later, when I received the first of many promotional emails from the company, one that encouraged me to sign up for a subscription, another that talked about increasing my credit score.

While I would learn through my short manic campaign in December to erase as much of my personal data as possible and start the new year with a clean digital whiteboard, it’s hard not to feel like I’m scratching the surface of an incredibly large industrial data complex. By the end of my experiment, I felt even worse than my ability to fight control of my data compared to when I started.

Our data is out there. And now?

In recent years, it has become a truism in some tech-savvy Twitter threads that much of our personal information is already available somewhere thanks to an ever-growing list of hacks.

Banks, retailers, social networks – both popular and deceased – disclosed massive data breaches. Only in 2017, Verizon (VZ) confirmed that every single Yahoo account – all 3 billion – had been hit by a serious breach e Equifax (EFX) revealed that a violation he had potentially exposed names, social security numbers, dates of birth, addresses and credit card numbers from nearly half of the United States.
There are only two possible emotional reactions to such a total collapse of personal privacy: denial or helplessness. After trying the first for a while, I moved on to the second, pushed, as in many other moments of my life, listening belatedly to a podcast that makes you think on a hack. I followed the usual steps recommended in cyber security information stories – implementing two-factor authentication; sign up for a password management app; blocking of credit relationships indefinitely, all with the imperative feeling that none of these passages has eliminated any of that personal information floating in a dark corner of the web.
As cyber security expert Bruce Schneier recently said to one of my colleagues: “So my password has been stolen, is there a way to go to all the criminals on the planet, from their computers and delete my name? No . ”

But there had to be more to do, I thought. The fact is that the Internet is already full of information that could be used against us, much of which is collected through entirely legal means. Maiden names of mothers. Birthdays. Home addresses. I may not be able to stop my favorite stores from being hacked or softly talk to a group of hackers after the fact, but I could make it a little more difficult for a bad actor to find my personal information online and, in the meantime, regain some control over my data and my life.

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How to delete your personal information online

Deciding to delete your information online is the easy part. The difficult part is figuring out where to start.

For many, the obvious answer would be to focus on consumer-oriented services like Facebook (FB) is Google (GOOGL), where voluntarily – if not always consciously – we deliver data about us daily. Technology industry veteran Praveenkumar Venkatesan has decided to launch DeleteMyData in late 2018 to help people do just that.

Offering a quick and easy guide to eliminating a range of popular services. Venkatesan hopes to “simplify” the process of cleaning our data. As he told CNN trading companies “to make it so easy” for people to collect their data, but much more difficult “for them to get out”. About 40,000 people now come to the site every month, he said. In comparison, Facebook has four platforms with over 1 billion users each.

But as a technology journalist, I wasn’t trying to completely eliminate the social networks and services that I rely on regularly for work (although over the years I’ve changed my privacy settings for many and made some accounts private). Instead, with the help of some online resources, including a guides cybercrime expert is Defender of reputation, an online reputation management service, I opted for a short list of lesser known databases believed to be among the most important personal information aggregators.

These included data brokers, who buy and sell our personal data, as well as “people search” services such as Spokeo and Radaris and background control platforms such as Infotracer and MyLife. They may not be family names, but these sites know a lot about many families. You may want to use these services if you were looking for information on a new neighbor, hired customer, or, according to Spokeo CEO Harrison Tang, “long lost family members or friends.” You may also come across a link to these sites when you go to Google if you are interested in this type of thing.

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“Different people have different feelings about privacy,” said Tang. In saying this, the urgent problem is not so much that of collecting data, but rather the need for greater transparency on how and why. “I don’t think consumers should be surprised.”

Unlike data breaches that attract much more attention in exposing our personal information, this data is legally aggregated. Spokeo, which claims to make around $ 70 million a year in sales, primarily from ordinary users and some corporate customers, including law enforcement agencies, extracts data from dating sites, social networks, criminal records and “databases”. marketing “from retailers, Tang said.

Jenna Raymond, COO of Accucom Corporation, an information services company that considers Infotracer as one of its brands, told CNN Business in December that criminal records are also a “big” data source for these sites, along with records properties. “The moment you buy a house, it’s public information,” he said.

“You can give up Infotracer,” he said, “but it’s still out there.”

A game of Whack-a-Mole

Over the course of a few days, I gave up on Infotracer – and many more.

Some, including Infotracer and Spokeo, have been able to eliminate almost immediately; others said it could take up to 72 hours for the information to be extracted. A number of services requested some new data to delete the old one, ranging from a phone number to confirm the removal to the email address requested by MyLife and subsequently spammed me.

On Radaris, before I could give up, I had to do it click on a page with instructions on how to “control your information”, which lists more than a dozen “premium data providers that aggregate, host and distribute personal and commercial information”, including Facebook, Google, Equifax and … the Patent Office and U.S. brands. Next, I saw a page listing dozens of multiple data brokers and websites.

Representatives for Radaris and MyLife did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The USPTO did not immediately answer the questions.

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“Unfortunately there is no centralized service to remove your information from all resources with a single request,” according to the Radaris page.

When I finally took control of my Radaris page, I felt more lost than before.

“I believe that information is power,” said Raymond, echoing slogan of his company. At least we agreed on this: information is power and consumers – including me – have given away too much of ours.

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