But even those who were able to opt out of FamilyTreeNow were only barely less visible online than they were before. Trying to scrub your identity from the internet is like trying to drain a bucket of water with an eyedropper, while a dripping faucet slowly fills it back up again.
MyFamilyTree is just one site in an extensive web of online services that compile, store, and sell (or give away) personal data. It bills itself as a genealogy research site—a free, less powerful version of the dominant Ancestry.com service—that allows people to search for their family members and assemble detailed family trees. But there are dozens of general people-search sites out there, like Whitepages.com and Spokeo, that serve up personal information to anyone with some free time and a few bucks to spend.
Most of these sites are powered by large, shadowy data brokers without publicly accessible search features, which track the personal data of millions of people. Add in public information like birth, marriage, arrest, and court records, and incredibly detailed profiles begin to emerge.
There are legal limits on how people can use information gleaned from these sites—they can’t be used to evaluate a job candidate, for example, or to stalk someone—but there are few actual safeguards in place to keep a user from doing just that.
On people-search sites, a few clicks (and sometimes a small payment) will unlock information on just about anybody. All you need to know is a name—if it’s a common one, another detail like state or age will help narrow the search—and you’ll get back that person’s age, phone numbers, email addresses, current and past home addresses, as well as their family members and “associates,” which can include more distant relatives or roommates. (These details can lay bare the details to common security questions, like “What street did you grow up on?” and “What’s your mother’s maiden name?”)
Another small payment will buy you a background check that searches for the person’s criminal history, court records, properties, business licenses, and other details. Most sites let you perform reverse searches, too: Enter a phone number or email address and you can see who owns it.
If all this readily accessible personal information makes you uncomfortable, by all means, try to remove your records. It’s rarely as easy as it sounds: There’s no legal requirement for brokers to accept or honor requests for removal, and many go out of their way to make it difficult, if they make it possible at all.
In 2014, the journalist Julia Angwin tried to remove her information from the databases of every data broker and people-search engine she could find. Of the 212 brokers she came across, fewer than half allowed her to opt out at all, and most of those required her to submit identification, like a driver’s license. Twenty-four of the brokers required opt-outs to be mailed or faxed in.