Cyberself is the term we use to collectively refer to the multiple data elements that make up your digital identity. Many parts of that digital identity live on the internet. These include your online accounts and passwords, cookies that collect data about you when you visit websites and the digital footprint created by your use of digital technologies. Left uncontrolled, your cyberself can quickly get out of hand. We begin a series of articles exploring how to consolidate your digital identity. In this first instalment, we take a look at your online accounts.
Do you know how many different versions of you live on the internet? Do you know how many individual online accounts you have across the many websites, apps, online retailers and digital services you have interacted with over the years? The answer is, probably quite a lot of them!
According to a 2019 study performed by the Harris Poll, Americans have on average 27 different online accounts that require passwords. This is also in line with a McAfee survey performed in 2018 that noted the average number was 23. It is important to note though, that these are just the online accounts where users required a password or actually remembered them.
How many digital versions of you live out on the internet? The short answer is, probably way more than you would be comfortable hanging out with if you were all confined together in a small room for any period of time.– Protectme.blog
Managing the many versions of your cyberself is a continuous struggle. For example, if one of the many online services you use suffers a data breach (a common news headline), your identity on other online services could be exposed to compromise (if you have used the same password across multiple services). There’s a lot that could be unpacked related to password security so if you’re curious, check out this article on the subject: “Why The Strength of Your Password Doesn’t Matter“.
While there is no effective way to have just one “cyberself” on today’s internet, reducing the fragmentation of your digital identity is a more realistic objective.
How to consolidate your digital identity (online accounts)
Let’s return to the many digital versions of you. So, how can you consolidate your cyberself? We outline four steps below that we hope will help you out. With each step, we have referenced helpful resources that offer some additional insight.
Step 1: Understand the extent of your cyberself
The first step is identifying all the little digital you’s (let’s call them ‘cyberselves’) that you have let run wild on the internet. Many people don’t understand just how extensive their cyberself becomes over time because simply put…it doesn’t feel tangible or immediately noticeable. Unlike when your physical life gets cluttered and you run out of space, your cyberself can just continue to grow across an ever-expanding list of online services, apps, websites, devices and more.
Lack of hygiene or order in your life can have detrimental effects on your physical health and social life. In the digital world, an out-of-control cyberself presents a larger attack surface (i.e., more information about you is available to compromise) to hackers and could threaten your privacy. From a mental health perspective, keeping up with a large number of log-ins and passwords can feel overwhelming.
In their article, “Privacy Fix: How to Find Old Online Accounts”, Consumer Reports provides some good strategies to help get you started with identifying and deleting unnecessary accounts. One way to begin is by typing your favourite usernames and email addresses into multiple search engines and seeing what comes up.
Step 2: Delete unnecessary accounts and profiles
The next step is to get rid of your unneeded accounts/profiles. You may ask, “How do I decide which little cyberselves to send to digital heaven?” A good set of questions to ask comes right out of a standard home decluttering handbook:
#1: Does the account bring you a net benefit? How much would you say the account (on a website, app etc) in question has benefited you in life? If the answer skews towards the negative…you can probably do without it.
#2: Do you have accounts that serve the same purpose? Do you use multiple but similar services that can be consolidated for example workout-tracking applications or multiple news subscriptions?
#3: How often do you actually use it? Have you even used it in the last year? This can be the best indicator of whether or not you actually need the account. Some phones will even give you activity stats by app if you need help justifying your decision to delete an app.
Once you have narrowed down your contenders for deletion, it is time to start letting them go. There are some things you should consider related to making sure your data is actually deleted. For example, many apps or services will simply “suspend” your account as opposed to deleting your identity, so be mindful of the fine print.
“Sadly, not all websites and social networks and online retailers are created equal when it comes to breaking up,” says Eric Griffith (PC Mag: “How to Delete Your Accounts From the Internet”). “Sometimes legality prevents a service from deleting everything you’ve posted publicly in the past, so remnants of your time there could remain in perpetuity,” he goes on to say.
Step 3: Secure your remaining accounts
If you’ve followed the preceding steps, you should now have a more consolidated digital footprint on the internet; a hopefully more manageable cyberself that can be corralled and further secured to help protect you from the dangers of the internet.
Next, go account by account and secure each based on the available security functionalities for each. This process will vary and you will probably need to use the ole’ Google machine to figure out the best ways to secure each account by typing in “secure my [insert provider name] account” and hitting enter.
General steps to secure your online accounts include using a password manager, turning on multi-factor authentication and protecting password resets. Check out “18 Ways to Make Your Online Accounts More Secure” by David Nield, Gizmodo.
Step 4: Maintain a clean and safe cyberself
Finally, once you have consolidated your digital footprint as much as possible, it is important to keep your cyberself clean. As we said earlier it is hard to notice when your cyberself grows out of control so being extra diligent about keeping your digital footprint small and secure will be important.
For instance, do you really need to download that trendy new game app that asks permission to access your phone contacts and potentially steal all of your data? Do you need to log into your accounts from a bunch of untrusted devices? Is doing a “Tik Tok” really worth your mental energy and invasion of privacy?
We found this article from Le VPN that provides some good strategies for cyber hygiene of online accounts as well as other parts of your digital life.
Good cyber hygiene means keeping your devices clean from viruses and malware and the cyberspace clear from your personal data.Vuk Mujović, Le VPN
Consolidate your digital identity as a lifestyle
In addition to your online accounts, other elements of your digital identity are scattered all over the internet – social media conversations, shopping patterns, credit history, location data and so on. Consolidating your online accounts is simply one piece of the process towards building a more secure cyberself.