I’ve used DeleteMe to remove my personal information from search engines and information hubs, but it hadn’t occurred to me until recently that I needed to also remove information about my home from listings sites. It turns out there are full photos, including video walkthroughs, just about everywhere. Particularly with a baby in the house, we felt uneasy about leaving these up.
USA Today has a quick guide to removing your home photos on the most popular sites, but it turns out there’s no public way to remove listing photos from MLS, the listings database that realtors use behind the scenes. You have to ask your agent nicely to do it on your behalf, which I didn’t know to do when I bought the house.
The selling agent also uploaded videos to YouTube — and there’s no defined process to remove those. I’ve had to send a nice email and hope that he has the time and inclination to remove. It would be nice if there was an automated way to remove my information there, too. (Updated to add: he very kindly removed it incredibly quickly.)
I post a lot, but keeping your personal data footprint on the internet clean is really difficult even if you don’t keep a blog or post to social media. Although other people shouldn’t post your personal information — it’s not legal, for a start — there’s no unified way to prevent them from doing so. There’s the threat of data leaks, of course, but there’s also the threat of intentional disclosure by someone who thinks what they’re doing is benign. In that way, it’s somewhere between an arms race and a losing battle: you can’t ever be sure that someone you’re dealing with in some capacity isn’t sharing more than they should about you on the web.
Searching for yourself and your other identifying information is a good way to figure out what’s out there, although the act of searching leaves its own insecure footprint. Zuckerberg was morally wrong when he said that the era of privacy is dead, but I wonder if he was, on a very practical level, correct.
I’m not a particularly vulnerable person. In contrast, for some people, these disclosures are life and death. Revealing an address or a home walkthrough has real implications for a journalist reporting on political corruption or someone fleeing their abusive partner.
We can build all the tools we want, but as I mentioned, it’s an arms race: there will always be more disclosures. Eventually this all comes down to establishing strong legal protections, and more importantly social norms, around privacy. The design of our internet tools and social networks, our standard patterns of use, and the way we think about organizing the data underlying the ways we search and share online are all organized around the principle of public-by-default. What if that all changed? How might it? And are the collateral losses — less sharing on the internet overall, fewer services around certain kinds of personal data — worth it?