Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for the Confident Computing newsletter for weekly solutions to make your life easier. Click here and get The Ask Leo! Guide to Staying Safe on the Internet — FREE Edition as my thank you for subscribing!

Will my internet activities of years ago come back to haunt me?

Question: Leo, I’m not going to beat around the bush with some made up story regarding the privacy of a friend or I did this when I was drunk or something like that. To get straight to the point, when I was first introduced to the internet, I was very naïve, believing what I searched for in Google and posted in forums was private. This is not the case.

At the time, I made some embarrassing searches and visited some sites that I certainly would not admit to today. Although none of this activity is what I deem as illegal, it’s only now that I’m happily married with children that I’ve realized that I would not wish for this information to come to light. If a person was not using a proxy or any sort of privacy settings on their browser and not regularly deleting cookies and they used the internet to visit sites and make Google searches that they believed they were never going to come to light, but they’ve also used that same computer to log in to social media and Amazon accounts, could one day all of  that activity be linked to them as a person? As I said, things that I did as a teenager many years ago are things that I would not want my wife and children to find out about now. I assume that everything I did sat on some server somewhere, but how easy would it be for someone to name and shame me?

There’s really no way to know with any certainty the absolute answer to your question.

That being said, I do have some thoughts.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

Kept information

It’s very unlikely that any of that information will randomly reappear without some cause. If no one is specifically looking for it, then no one is likely to stumble upon it. Nonetheless, someone who is looking for information about you could find whatever you have out there.

One of the things that we don’t know is how long that information stays on servers and the internet.

Things like your cookies and a few of the other privacy settings that you mentioned have no bearing on this. But you have to think about the logs on the servers that you visited, the backups of those logs, and whatever services you used. What information do those services keep over time?

We just don’t know.

When talking about this kind of thing, my rule of thumb is that the internet is forever. In practical terms, servers clean out their databases and they do their backups fairly regularly. We just don’t know how often.

Eeek!Reputation management

Reputation management services can find the kinds of online things that might cause you concern. They then do what they can to bury them. They can’t really make them go away, but they can make them harder to find.

For instance, if something embarrassing about you appears on page one of Google results, a reputation management company might put enough other things about you out on the internet to bury that information and get it off of page one.

One piece of advice that I can offer is that unless you’re in a position where people will go digging into your past, you’re probably okay. I can’t guarantee it, but it’s not something that should cause you to worry.

Do this

Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.

I'll see you there!

9 comments on “Will my internet activities of years ago come back to haunt me?”

  1. i wonder if completely destroying the computer and buying a new one would help? At least it should if the man is worried about people he lives with getting in on dark things. But, he would have to change his server as well to protect himself from all but the most salacious of investigators.
    I believe we all want to hide something. It is hard not to do something you later will regret. So, make a covenant with yourself not to do such things on your (new) computer in the future. If no one is watching, God is!

  2. Google keep getting into trouble with the information they ADMIT to keeping – so what about all the stuff they DON’T admit to keeping, or ‘assure us’ they have deleted?
    Privacy is becoming a thing of the past. The “Thought Police” have finally arrived.

  3. Hi firstly thanks for the detailed response and comments, just to clarify I was talking about information stored on internet servers as opposed to my personal computer, that computer was wiped along time ago. I wasn’t really talking about data which I knowingly supplied to sites I was referring more to stuff such as click-stream data collected by third party advertisers with whom I never gave any personal details, as far as I’m aware they can form a pretty good picture of an individuals browsing habits and possibly link it to a named person that was more my concern.
    Thanks once again for the answer.

    • I distill you’re worried about your relatives finding out what you did.
      I think you’re worrying too much. That’s unhealthy.
      It all depends on what kind of information you shared.
      But the chance they find about it is very remote, don’t worry.

      I have a more open relationship, if asked I just tell them what I did and where they can find it.
      I don’t care, I did it before their time, so there’s no reason for them to complain.

  4. Try to dig up dirt on yourself ..if you are successful then others could do the same. Make sure you run ccleaner after any searches on Google,otherwise ads will pop up connected to your search.
    Stuff I wrote on forums years ago is still there …if I Google johnpro2 much of it is all available :(

  5. Further, I just noticed via Google johnpro2 search that a non English site has reposted a Youtube video onto their site …. I have never been to this site and this first time I have ever seen it ..but who would believe that..?
    Leo’s pic comes up on about page 4 of Google as well…so like it or not we are associated ;)

  6. How secure are dating sites? There are dating sites that cause me to wonder if the profiles of supposedly interested candidates sent to my email are scams trying to find personal info in order to use for purposes such as Identity fraud. I had never considered possible threats to my identity or my computer when I signed up for some of these sites. I did not give my personal info, only very general info to join. I don’t know how easy or how likely it would be for someone to use these emails to gain personal data from my computer.

    At first, I thought these dating sites were of legitimate people, but as time passed, I became suspicious of how legitimate the profiles are. Can you expose your personal security by logging on to profiles sent to your email by supposedly interested candidates?

    I ask these questions because I know that if you open certain unsolicited emails you can unknowingly download viruses.


Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.