Saturday, May 13, 2023

Delete Your Internet History for a Safer Future

 By now, millions of Baby Boomers and other Americans have been on the internet for close to 25 years.  If you are like most of them, you almost certainly have signed up for countless online accounts from stores and other businesses. You may have had several email accounts, including those with former employers.  You may have been on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr and others for years.

Can you even remember every site you have been on, or what you posted, the comments you made, and the posts you "liked?"  Probably not.

Recently, I began closing old accounts which I had not used for years, such as my Reddit, Tumblr and Linked-in accounts.  Much to my surprise, I even discovered I had two Linked-in accounts!  I closed them both down.  I'm not looking for a job, and there is no reason for me to use Linked-in.  

However, I also realize that there is more we need to do to make sure our internet history is as tight as possible.  As a result, I was pleased to read an article in the November, 2021 issue of Reader's Digest which provided a number of tips for reducing the size of my internet footprint.  While I did not follow all their advice, anything we can do to eliminate past accounts and secure our current accounts will help keep us safer online.  Below are some helpful tips to get you started.

Delete any old accounts you no longer use.  Do not forget to close and delete old email accounts and online businesses you no longer use.  Can't remember them all?  If a company sends you a promotional email, you should try to delete your account with that company first and, afterwards, unsubscribe from their email list.  Google has the instructions for closing a wide variety of different email accounts.  Every business should have a link where you can delete the account you have with them.

Do not save payment details on every site where you make purchases.  If you regularly use a particular shopping site, such as Walmart or Amazon, then you may want to store your credit card information on the site to make shopping more convenient.  However, for that single sale you make once a year, it is much safer to enter your credit card information each time you make a purchase. Otherwise, it is possible a criminal could access that information and start making purchases.

Delete your old e-mails, even in accounts you currently use.  Do you really need to keep thousands of old emails?  Did you know that emails stored on a web server, such as Gmail, can legally be considered abandoned after 180 days and the government can access them with a search warrant?  Unless there is a reason to keep an old email, delete them all after a few months.  Set your "deleted emails" or "trash" folders to automatically delete old emails after a specific period of time. 

Update your passwords.  By now, it is very possible that you have used the same password for more than one account.  Stop it!  Give all the accounts you currently use a fresh, new password. In this way, if a hacker discovers an old account of yours that you forgot to delete, they cannot try using that old password with your current accounts. Use strong, unique passwords for each account you have.  With so many different passwords, it is a good idea to store them on your computer AND use a little notebook or address book to jot down your log-in information and passwords for every site you use.  Keep the notebook in a safe place, but tell at least one other person you trust where it is.  It could be very helpful if something happens to you and your family needs to close out your accounts to prevent the information from being stolen.

Try using a password manager.  I confess that I have not tried using a password manager, but you could try using a service such as 1Password (about $3 a month per person or $5 a month for a family).  The article in Reader's Digest also recommended a free service called Bitwarden. They did warn that not all free password managers are reliable, and some could be hacked, which would leave you even more vulnerable, so use your own judgement about using a password manager. 

Tighten your social media privacy.  What information do you want to reveal on the public pages of Facebook?  Think carefully before you reveal the year and place you were born, the place where you currently live, and similar information.  For older Americans, it is possible for a hacker to narrow down your possible Social Security numbers if they know your place of birth and the year you were born.  Social Security numbers were once based on this information, so there are just a few other digits they would have to guess.

Control who sees your Facebook posts.  If you have hundreds of Facebook "friends," it probably means you are revealing private information to hundreds of people you barely know.  I have made it a rule to limit the number of Facebook friends I have to family, relatives, close friends and people I actually know in "real life."  In addition, I have different groups who can see my posts.  All of my friends can see when I post a photo I took of a sunrise or the ocean.  A smaller group can see family photos or vacation photos.  Only a select, small group can see political posts and other topics which could be controversial.  There are a lot of advantages to setting up different groups and carefully selecting which group is going to see each post.  It may take you a few tries to refine who is in each group, but it will be worth your time if it helps you protect your privacy and avoid online arguments.

Delete old social media posts.  Facebook also has a Manage Activity tool which will allow you to delete or archive posts which are older than a certain date.  Instagram will allow you to delete or archive specific posts.  You can use a third-party tool called Tweet Delete to delete old Tweets, either automatically or according to your specific criteria. This could be helpful, for example, if you do not want old political posts used against you.  However, the site charges $4 to $6 a month for you to delete old Tweets. That is something to think about before you post a bunch of Tweets or re-Tweet things which you might have to explain during a job interview or political campaign!

Visit your My Google Account page to turn off any activity you do not want them to save.  Just go to Manage Your Google Account and in the left navigation panel click Data & Privacy.  Under History Settings, click My Activity and then decide which activities you want to turn off, such as your location history.  Is there really any reason why Google needs to know where you go?  Only if you are using Google maps.

Take more extreme measures if you are really concerned about your privacy.  If you really, really do not want anyone to know what you are doing online, you might switch from using Google and try DuckDuckGo, instead.  If you are worried about protecting your business secrets or hiding from a stalker, you can also go to the extreme of using a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and/or using end-to-end encryption.  However, the majority of regular internet users do not need this level of privacy.  If you do decide to try these things, you may want to get expert assistance in setting everything up in the safest way possible.

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