You can remove personal information from Google searches, but you’ll have to work on it

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever Googled their own name that the internet knows a lot about everyone. What may be surprising is how detailed this knowledge can be.

Current and past phone numbers, mailing and email addresses, names of relatives and associates, even details of neighbors can often be found for those who know where and how to look.

But last week, Google announced that it start removing personal information from search results on demand. This is an extension of a previous policy that allowed users to request the deletion of information that could be harmful to themsuch as bank account/credit card numbers, login credentials or information used in doxxing, in which a person’s personal data is revealed with malicious intent.

The new removal request tool, located at support.google.com/websearch/answer/9673730, is pretty easy to use and I’ll walk you through the process in a moment. But it’s important to note that it only removes your personal information from Google searches. It does not remove personal information from the website linked to these results.

It will also not impact the results of other search engines. Details could still appear in Microsoft Bing, duck duck go, Brave or any other research site. But Google has a market share of over 92%, so your removal request would cover the vast majority of requests.

And there is another catch. Google asks you to specify the site where the offending data is located, as well as provide a link to the search result pointing there. It’s not about saying “remove all personal information about me from your search results”. Instead, the process is more like, “Here’s a website with personal information, and here’s how I found it using Google search. Please remove it from your search results.

This means that you will have to look for sites where your personal information is visible. They are there, that’s for sure. Take advantage of the irony of using Google Search to find the sites you want to prevent from appearing in Google Search.

But the effort is worth it. Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University who focuses on security, said the amount of detail available on so-called “people search” sites can be alarming. This can include where you live now, where you’ve lived in the past, even old phone numbers.

“If I had that kind of information, and then I had your social security number, that’s all it would take to get a credit card in your name,” Wallach said.

Some of this data is public information. For example, the Harris County Assessment District allows you to easily find out who owns a given property. But other data is taken from legal – albeit sketchy – sources, including your online purchases and browsing behavior. Data brokers collect and then sell this information. Wallach said there was a “thin wall” between that data stored on a proprietary database and visibility on the internet. There are always flaws that expose it.

So before asking Google to cleanse its search results of your data, you need to find it. Start by searching for your name and scrolling through the results. Save web addresses of pages you find and also take screenshots.

Next, search for your mailing address – this will often yield different and more detailed results than a name. Also try your phone number and email address. (Pro tip: Do this using your browser’s stealth mode, called Incognito in Chrome; Private in Safari and Firefox; InPrivate in Microsoft Edge. It won’t log those sensitive searches and offers some tracking protection. )

You are now ready to make your case to Google.

Go to the web address I provided earlier and click the “Start removal request” button. On the next page, you’ll see several options, with pencil icons where you can change them. To simply request that personal identifying information be removed, leave the first two options as they are.

The third option asks if you have contacted the owner of the website. Click “No, I’d rather not”. Choose “No, what can I do?” provides guidance for contacting sites and requesting that your information be deleted there. It’s useful to know, but the information must be left initially so that Google can find it and process your search deletion request.

Checking “I’d rather not” brings up categories of information. Choose “Personal information, such as ID numbers and private documents”, which reveals some subcategories. For this exercise, we will choose “Contact information, such as address, telephone number or e-mail address”.

This opens up a set of fields that allow you to enter your name, email address, country of residence, and more. You can also enter the web addresses of the sites where you found your personal information (up to 1,000 at a time) and the address of the search pages that link to them. You can also upload screenshots you have taken from the offending sites. Other fields let you enter the words you used in the search and any other details you want to offer for context.

Press Submit and the request is forwarded to Google. You will receive a notification in your inbox that the submission has been received. It may take a while to get a response, and the notification says it may never come.

If you receive a response that the deletion request has been granted, or perhaps after a week or two, go back to the sites where you found the data and request deletion. Most legitimate sites will accept this request, but some less reputable ones may require payment.

You can find a free guide to requesting deletions from DeleteMe, which also sells a service that does much of this work for you. The free guide is at joindeleteme.com/help/diy-free-opt-out-guide/. That might be all you need.

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