Publicly Available Data

Do yourself a favor right now. Stop what you're doing, open Google in another tab (yes, Google, just this once), and search your first and last name, full phone number, or email address. You might be surprised at the information that comes up about you. Probably home address, previous addresses, family members, jobs, social media profiles, etc. This can be a huge problem. You never know when you might suddenly end up in the spotlight. You never know when a family member will do or say something that blows up, or if a seemingly benign social media post will go viral, or some angry kid on the internet SWATS you. You could even lose your job over it. It's happened before.

Most of these sites do have methods of opting out and removing your information that range from automated to painful, but it doesn't really matter. They get their information from a variety of sources that will just repopulate again in the future. Some sources include things like your LinkedIn profile. Others include official sources like DMV records, the post office, or utilities.

Opting Out: Phone Numbers

Phone numbers are as good as social security numbers nowadays. Just Google yours if you don't believe me. The best way to start opting out is two-fold. Step 1 is to remove your phone from your name. This means no more buying phones on payment plans. Buy a phone up front in cash and use a pay-as-you-go plan. They're not advertised, but they're still out there, and they actually tend to cost less for individuals or small families. Step 2 is to get access to a Voice-Over-IP (or VOIP) service and never use your SIM card number. This will ensure that the phone number associated with your name never gets searched in the first place. I highly recommend MySudo. I've been using them myself for years and am quite happy with the suite of services they offer. If you're on a budget, I recommend Google Voice. I normally hesitate to recommend Google Apps, but quite frankly VoIP services are expensive and complicated to run, so there's not a lot of good options out there. On that note, because VoIP services have such a high barrier to entry, I'd be wary of free ones. Remember, "If a product is free, you are the product." Google will absolutely collect the data from using their service, so don't use it for anything important. This is purely for junk calls or calls where using a secure messenger may not be appropriate, such as online dating, ordering takeout food, or a phone number to put on your resume. In a perfect world you'd have different numbers set up for different things (don't want your Tinder date googling your number and finding your office), but regardless definitely don't use your SIM number whenever possible.

Opting Out: Emails

This one is actually super easy. Email forwarding is simple. My top recommendation right now is AnonAddy, though GuerillaMail is another popular choice, and recently Firefox Relay has joined the scene. The point of email forwarding is that you never use your real email address. Using your main email address means that in a data breach, you can be identified across multiple websites. Furthermore, if you use one email address for everything (as most people do) that presents a security risk. If a hacker gains access to your main email account, they now have easy access to reset all your account passwords and gain access. Email forwarding is an easy, simple solution to this problem, and comes with a huge advantage: if an address you gave out starts getting resold and spammed, just shut it off with no major consequences. An alternate method here is to use multiple accounts: one for banking, one for shopping, one for social media and personal stuff, etc, but honestly I've found email forwarding to be much more convenient and simple.

Opting Out: Physical Addresses

Imagine the internet spontaneously deciding that you're patient zero for a pandemic even though you provably are not. It happened to one woman. Or imagine if a coworker, relative, or friend suddenly committed a horrible crime, and now the news media is rushing to your front lawn to get an exclusive comment. Or imagine making the honest mistake of going on a date with someone, deciding for any reason it isn't going to work out, and now having a stalker (sadly too many women don't need to imagine this scenario). It happens more often than you think. And once it happens, it's too late to get them to go away. The best security against this type of unwanted attention is to simply not let your home address out into the public in the first place. It's much harder to find you if your address isn't easy to Google, and in most cases that's enough.

There are a variety of ways to keep your home off the net that range from easy and legal to hard and unfeasible. Some of the simpler methods include renting a room or a home from an independent landlord, paying in cash, and arranging in advance to keep your name off the utilities (utilities are a common source of public data scraping), but this may not be ideal for a family or aspiring homeowner. More advanced methods include renting an apartment in a shell corporation or buying a home in a trust. You could even do these through a lawyer to ensure that your name doesn't publicly appear on any of the paperwork. I'm not a lawyer and I'm not qualified to give you advice on how to do this, though author JJ Luna is generally considered an expert in this field. If this is the level of protection you want, I advise checking out his books. The moral of the story is to realize that most home-related documents are considered public record. Before you sign the lease or mortgage or utilities or phone connection or any of that, be sure to think about how you can avoid having your name next to it publicly. There's often more options than you think.

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