What was once called "online life" is just "normal life" now. Life is funneled through our phones, laptops, and wearables: an incredibly detailed, annotated, timestamped diary that we unwittingly complete every minute of every day. But how permanent is your online trail?
If you wanted to go completely off the grid, how difficult would it be? It's incredibly difficult to completely disconnect from your online identity – or is it? In Part One of a look into what anonymity means in today’s society, Kathryn Lawrence explains what technology you need to use to disappear completely...
“Many, many years ago, so long ago that it’s a real stretch to find anyone else who can remember this, on the old Oprah show, she did a feature on individuals who had left society and, in the process, had eliminated every trace of themselves. She had like three or four guests up on stage, if I recall correctly, and they had all gone back and diligently destroyed every little bit of information previously known about them. Burning birth certificates and ID cards, canceling bank accounts. Stealing photos out of family member’s albums and destroying them. They had hired hackers to break into schools and erase their records.
"In fact, each of these persons had done such a bang-up job that all that was known about each of them was their social security numbers. (Although Oprah’s researchers were unable to say which social belonged to which person; these numbers were only known because of the noticeable gaps that were left in the government’s records.) On the program, these people sat in the dark; nameless and unsorted. No one knew who they were."
– excerpt from CLOSURE, by _why the lucky stiff
Uber has recently been embroiled in a series of scandals.
First, it was regarding sexual harassment in their offices, then fair pay for their workers on the road, followed by hidden programs designed to evade regulation – and most recently, their use of a rival's customer data. A recent New York Times profile of Uber’s founder revealed that they were using data mined by a web service called Unroll.me – a free service that was too good to be true.
Unroll.me combs through your email, finds services you’re subscribed to, and then unsubscribes from them for you, so that you can easily tidy up your digital presence. What they didn’t tell users (except in fine print in their terms of service) is that a lot of data about you found whilst combing through emails would then be available for sale.
For Uber, this was really useful: they could look at anonymised receipts from their rival ride-sharing business, Lyft. The users of Unroll.me didn’t find this so edifying, and a media uproar followed.
Whatever the moral quandary around data use, several other similar services exist, revealing a thriving market of people who want to delete their personal data wherever they can on the internet.
For instance: Deseat.me is an almost identical service to Unroll.me; Gmail Unsubscribe is another. Another, paid, service called DeleteMe will check the sites it deletes your data from periodically to be sure that your information hasn’t been recovered after "deletion".
People want to disappear; at least a little bit. But how?
"Nowadays we would label this kind of act as ‘information suicide’ or something very sophisticated, because people are much more aware of the importance of ones’ identities, but in those days we simply called it ‘jerktoasting’ and these people on the stage were just a few jerktoasters who got caught. We were fascinated by them, because no one of us had ever thought of deleting ourselves. It seemed futuristic to do so and it seemed to exhibit willful antipathy to do so, which, in a way, somehow seems quite futuristic as well.”
– excerpt from CLOSURE, by _why the lucky stiff
What does it take to commit “infosuicide”?
And where should you start if you want to begin to disappear? It might be easier to make a difference than you think. Here's how you could do it...
Your real identity and your financial services are inextricably intertwined. So the first thing you would need to do is remove any and all banking information from the internet. That means no online banking, no PayPal, no Amazon or any other e-commerce websites, and no Netflix (if you pay for Netflix). A service like Cancel Wizard can actually go through some of these processes for you (for a fee).
No Social Media
This one seems fairly obvious, but any place where you have pictures of yourself can be found by reverse image search. Completely deleting Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and all of the others isn’t exactly made easy, but the data you create there is worth its weight in gold.
Sometimes it can be fun to dig into your old Myspace, Livejournal, or Xanga, but it’s also nice to know those old pictures or online diary entries won’t come back to haunt you. The services Just Delete Me and Account Killer rank sites by how difficult they are to remove your personal information from.
Even if you use a nickname that you think isn’t connected to your real identity in any way, it only takes one website’s lack of privacy to connect someone to every account where you use that same username.
Delete Yourself From Data Collection Sites
This CNET tutorial advises that you can look up your personal information on data brokers’ sites like Whitepages and Peoplefinder and individually request their deletion, but they also note that sometimes this requires filing actual paperwork.
This is where having a paid service like DeleteMe, who will do the web scouring for you, comes in handy. If you really want to do it all manually, a Reddit user compiled this list of the most commonly used background checking sites.
Contact Webmasters and Remove Your Domains
Google provides a handy list of web services they run that you can formally request having your information removed from, including the platforms Blogger/Blogspot, Google Drive, and YouTube. If you’ve ever owned a web domain, you should check the WhoIs databases to be sure that your phone number, address, email address, or any other personal info isn’t being saved and served to anyone.
via Mobile Beat
Blast the Cache
Even if your information has been removed from the current version of a website, the cache is king. Google lists several reasons on its troubleshooting page that they may deny your request to remove a cached version of a page, and services like the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine retain cached versions of web pages for posterity and as a historical imperative.
There’s not much you can do about these, unless you go back to the previous step, look up the webmaster’s WhoIs data, and contact them directly with a request to purge your information from the cache.
and finally... Delete Your Email Address
Getting rid of all of these other services will most likely require having access to your email address, so this should be the last step. And possibly the hardest - although if you've seen the above process through this far, maybe it'll actually be an easy decision.
What will you do when you remove yourself from the Internet?
Discard your phone and read books or write letters instead? Eschew the VR headset and strike up conversation with strangers on public transport? Live like the Amish? Whittle sticks and slowly rock in a chair on your porch?
Can the modern person even exist off the internet grid entirely?
Next week, in Part Two, Kathryn finds out about life after you disappear completely from the web, and tells the fascinating story of a legendary developer who completely vanished from the internet – only to suddenly reappear years later.