Personally identifiable information (PII) is not sacred to search engines, or at least it has not been. Over the years, Google and its parent company, Alphabet, have accepted that many people just don’t want to be found in a search. Some more recent laws have helped push companies in this direction. Sometimes users were clamoring for better privacy tools. So Google started giving in(Opens in a new window). It never hurts to appear more privacy-focused than the competition, which isn’t hard to do when going up against Facebook.(Opens in a new window).
Recently, Google added to its privacy repertoire by allowing you to submit a request to have your addresses (both physical and email) and phone numbers removed from potential search results. You can request it without even having to prove that the data flowing there is a problem (with a few exceptions), which is a big step for the search engine.
The personal information mentioned above has been added to the already existing ability to limit exposure on Google results to the following:
National identification numbers
Credit card numbers
Login information and credentials
“Irrelevant pornography” (i.e. explicit material related in some way to your name)
Deepfake porn in which you can appear against your will.
If you’re afraid of getting doxxed(Opens in a new window)Google can even remove your business contact information.
This is all good news, but how exactly do you get Google to remove the offending personal information?
Eventually, you’ll be able to do this in the Google app. Imagine doing a search for your phone number, seeing it appear in the results, and being able to click the three-dot menu next to the result to request its removal. Google says this will happen in the next few months. Before that, you need to do a little more work.
The first stop is this Google search help page(Opens in a new window)which presents an overview of the options above, but also displays the direct link to this form: Request to delete your personal information from Google(Opens in a new window).
The options are to either suppress the information that appears in search results or completely prevent the information from appearing in searches. If you want the latter and own the website with the information you don’t want to display, Google explains how to block a specific URL or site pages from Google search results. These are robots.txt files(Opens in a new window)meta tags(Opens in a new window)and password protected page files(Opens in a new window).
To remove information, you need to know if it appears only in Google search results or in the results and on a separate website. In the latter case, Google may not control what is there and asks if you contacted the site owner first to remove the information. It also offers ways to get in touch with a site.
Maybe you don’t want to contact a site, or you’ve already tried. Google asks you a series of questions, such as what type of information you want removed, narrowing it down to one specific thing when possible. It will also ask if the content is shared with the intention of doxxing(Opens in a new window) you, i.e. when someone shares your PII with the intent to harm you. You may need to enter a lot of data, but the more detail you provide, the less likely Google will need to track you before removing PII from search results.
Google says if your PII appears on a live page you control and you’ve already updated it to remove the information, it should eventually go away, but the page may be cached. It’s when you request for removal of obsolete web pages(Opens in a new window). You will need specific URLs for the pages; you can submit up to 1,000 URLs on the form.
You can also request removal of outdated images found on images.google.com. You’ll also need to copy the URLs for each image (right-click and select Copy Image Address if you’re in the Chrome browser).
You will then receive an email confirming that the request has been received. (If you don’t, try again.) Google reviews the request, gathers more information if needed, and finally you’ll receive notification of any action.
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It should be noted that a request is not always guaranteed to be granted. Google’s announcement(Opens in a new window) carefully stated: “When we receive removal requests, we will assess all content on the web page to ensure that we do not limit the availability of other widely useful information, for example in news articles.” And again, removing information from search results does not remove it from the webpage where it originally appeared.
Watch out for illegal stuff
You may not just want to delete personal data, for example, you see something in search that is actually illegal, such as potentially criminal content or intellectual property infringement. In this case, you can go to Google Report content for legal reasons at g.co/legal(Opens in a new window) and create demand. Google has an entire video on this.
Other search engines
What are the personal information deletion policies of other search engines?
With DuckDuckGowhich prides itself on respecting privacy, your only recourse is to use e-mail [email protected] and hope that the PII you want to remove falls under privacy laws. You won’t get any response from the company.
Bing from Microsoft seems limited to allowing you to submit a page removal request(Opens in a new window), but only for pages that are no longer live. This is primarily for webmasters. Ultimately, Bing expects you to go to the website that first posted your PII, do all the heavy lifting, and so try the page delete request.
You are never invisible
Cleaning your digital footprint from search engines is not the same as removing it from the internet. Search engines didn’t publish the information, they indexed it, pulling the data from another source. And they might catch it again from another source.
You will never be completely free from search engine results unless you remove all traces of yourself and log out completely. You can always try services like Abine’s DeleteMe or IDX Privacy’s Forget Me, which go out of their way to prevent your information from being used by data brokers (for a subscription fee).
But until you delete all your old email accounts, stop using mobile apps and location services, quit social media, stop shopping online, and log in never again to anything, an entity will have anything on you. You can try to sue to delete your data, but this will probably lead to the Streisand effect(Opens in a new window), in which trying to hide something only makes it easier to find. That said, we have a few tips that can help you almost completely disappear from the internet while you listen to Babs sing “The Way We Were.”
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