Government agencies and private companies get hacked. It happens every day. They will assure you that your personal data is protected, but it’s not. Some sell, share and barter your private information with other companies and agencies with no regard to protection. If it’s leaked, they’ll apologize, while you are stuck with the damage.
For law enforcement personnel and judicial officers, leaking private information is more than just financially inconvenient. It could be life-threatening. The number of attacks against judges and law enforcement officers has increased significantly over the last five years, and it continues to rise. Best case scenario: A loud protest outside your door. Worst case: ongoing harassment, vandalism, or violence – even murder.
Removing personal information, especially home addresses, from online sources is necessary and within anyone’s reach. Some states like California make it easier; with others, the process can be more time-consuming, but it is time well spent. Follow these three steps to protect yourself and your family.
- Remove What Is Already There
Do a quick search for your name and city on a search engine. You will likely find dozens of results that list your name, phone number, and the names of your spouse and children. Click on those sites and start scrolling down for the “Remove Me” links. If you live in one of the states that protect law enforcement agents, you are in luck, as by law, they must comply with your request.
For those living in states with no law-defined protection, don’t panic. Most sites offer an opt-out option. Let them know you are in law enforcement and require them to remove your personal information because its publication can threaten your safety. If you use disposable emails and VOIP numbers and are selective about giving out your information, you can actually uncover how they found your information. If you only gave [email protected] to your pizza guy and that shows up on one of these websites, then you know it was the pizza guy that sold you out.
Google also allows individuals to have their private information removed from their searches. Search “removing my private information” and follow the directions. Be aware, however, that Google will indeed filter private address and phone number results, but not the underlying sources where this information appears. If someone searches on Bing or visits Spokeo and searches for you there, your information will appear.
It is important to recognize that even with these precautions, your personal information will keep coming back when databases are refreshed, so diligent searching is required on your part. Alternatively, privacy services can be engaged on your behalf. Costs range from $100-$200 annually and may provide the smartest path to ensuring a consistent and thorough privacy effort
- Make it a Habit to Stop New Information From Appearing
Do not give out information unless it is necessary. Does Uber Eats need your personal phone number or name to deliver dinner? No. They need only your credit card and address. Any other information they request is not for your good but for theirs. They sell it. Does your supermarket need your email, address, and phone number to sell you groceries? Of course not. Say no, forego the discounts, and protect your privacy. Don’t ever share your real phone number, and provide disposable (and changing emails) when asked. Consistency is what marketers crave, so don’t be consistent.
Other companies are much more insidious about how they steal private information. Banks and social media sites like Facebook want your mobile phone for two-factor verification? No thank you, email works just as well. You want your TV connected to the internet? Just know that while it makes it easier to watch Netflix, it is also selling your information. Getting a low-cost VOIP number that you can forward to your real number (purchased with a bogus name and address) enables you to avoid giving out precious personal info.
If your information is out there already (and it probably is), it’s not too late to protect your privacy. Start changing what’s out there with fake information, and online databases will update themselves with this content. Also, consider using a mail forwarding address (as long as you hide your home address when purchasing it).
If you have an Android phone, use Google’s search engine, or ask Siri questions, make certain your personal privacy controls are set to limit your exposure. The more you allow these companies access to your information, the more lucrative you become and the more your information will be sold. Bottom line, make privacy a priority and a habit, rather than clicking yes for convenience or because “it’s what people do.”
Even most DMV offices, county recorders, and government offices will mask personal information on request, so when it gets shared (yes, governments do it, too) individuals are still protected. Your voter information is more challenging to mask, but you can ask. And if your county will not mask your property tax information, consider getting a trust to hide your name from being tied to a published personal address.
- Ask Your Department / Union for Help
Most employers and unions understand the importance of keeping their employees and members safe. Many will pay for this type of protection, or offer significant discounts they have negotiated for you. If yours does not, ask them to look into it. You can’t do your job if you are worried about being doxed, or having your family threatened at home.
Finally, use the power of the vote. Many states are considering adding protections for law enforcement, judicial officers, and other public servants, but they are slow to act. Let your representatives know that others are stealing what belongs to you and it is costing lives. Legislation works. After the EU passed their landmark GDPR legislation and enforced it, privacy of information soared. In fact, most privacy service companies don’t operate in Europe anymore because there is no need. That is a good thing.
About the author:
Ron Zayas is an online privacy expert, speaker, author, and CEO of 360Civic, a provider of online protection to law enforcement, elected officials, and judicial officers. For more insight into online privacy laws, proactive strategies, and best online data practices, download a free how-to guide on protecting yourself at 360civic.com/privacy-resources. Connect with Ron at [email protected] or LinkedIn .