Breaking Up With the Internet (is hard to do)

Category: Privacy

I just heard a country song with the interesting title “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90s”, and it sparked a thought. Back in 1993, before the Netscape browser opened up the World-Wide Web for millions, and your mailbox was cluttered with AOL discs, it was pretty easy to “break up” with the Internet if you wanted to do so. Just unplugging the telephone wire from your 56K modem would do the trick for most people. Alas, it’s not that easy now. Here's what you would have to do in order to disappear from the online world...

Can You Remove Yourself From The Internet?

As the saying goes, "The Internet never forgets," but can you at least give it amnesia? For various reasons, some people want to become invisible on the Web. Is there a secret button to press, or a magical device to plug into your computer, to wipe every trace of you from the entire Internet?

Every so often, I hear someone boasting that they are "invisible" or "completely anonymous" on the Internet. And I chuckle. So I do a few Google searches and easily turn up their home address, phone number, employer, names of spouses and children, their hobbies, and even the make, model and color of their car. In one case, I found all that, plus a photo of a guy sitting on his front porch; he had claimed that there was no trace of him online. (Imagine his shock when I sent him that photo!)

There are some very good reasons for wanting to delete yourself from the Internet, or at least remove some portions of your online footprint. This Scientific American article tells the story of a young man who sent a video to a potential employer. That video was leaked online, went viral, and it became a huge source of embarrassment. I'm sure you can imagine other scenarios where something was shared online (with or without permission) and the person affected just wanted to disappear.

Ghyslain Raza was a shy 15-year-old when he recorded a video of himself imitating Darth Maul with a lightsaber. Classmates discovered the tape in the school's AV studio, and posted it online without Raza's knowledge or consent. Ghyslain Raza became the Star Wars Kid, he was mercilessly mocked, and it pretty much ruined his life for years.

I'm glad that my youthful indiscretions are not forever recorded online. I lost a scholarship in high school because of something stupid I did on the school computer. If that had been publicly accessible knowledge, I might have been denied entrance to my college of choice, or lost the opportunity for a job at IBM. Young people today think nothing of documenting every detail of their lives online, until one of those details comes back to bite them. MIT Technology Review's article Why An Internet That Never Forgets Is Especially Bad For Young People gives several examples.

Others just want to protect their privacy. The truth is, it’s practically impossible to erase every trace of yourself from the Internet. Just look at what you would have to do (and I’ve probably forgotten a few things).

Can you become invisible online?

Close all of your social media accounts. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram, Flickr, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Skype, Youtube, Tumblr, and who knows what else? Here's a list of almost 200 social media sites. Your zombie MySpace page may still be public. (And just for good measure, you might want to check this list of several dozen defunct social media sites.)

Just finding the “delete my account” button is a deliberately difficult process. Social networks (and especially paid membership sites) don’t want you to leave, and they are under no obligation to help you. Many have human or software “retention agents” who will argue with you (if you let them) rather than let you get to that “delete my account” button. But services like AccountKiller provide the necessary directions for deleting accounts on many social networks and websites.

Facebook gives you the option to permanently delete your account, but says that it may take up to 90 days from the beginning of the deletion process to delete all the things you've posted. Before doing so, you may want to download your Facebook data first. You also have the option to “deactivate” your account. This essentially means hiding (but not deleting) your profile and all your posts, pictures, videos, etc., where the general public can’t see them. A deactivated account can be reactivated if desired.

Breaking Up (with the Internet) Is Hard To Do

Likewise, you also have the option to delete your Google account. Just be aware that you may be using a variety of Google services (Gmail, Drive, Youtube, Calendar, Play Store, etc.) Take time to read the explanations on that page and choose carefully what you wish to delete. You may want to download emails, pictures, videos, documents, and other things from Google before deleting your account. There are some other considerations that I discuss in Here’s What Google Knows About You (and how you can delete it).

After the social networks come shopping sites (Amazon, eBay, Walmart, etc.), financial sites, auctions, dating, gaming, newspaper, job search sites, etc. You’ll need to delete blog posts you’ve written, comments you made in forums, letters to the editor, and so on.

Once your accounts are closed, you’ll need to find and eliminate traces of yourself online. Ironically, Google is your friend here, enabling you to find mentions of your name (and previous names), and even photos of yourself. Drop images of yourself into Google Image Search and see if you come up with any matches. It’s not facial recognition, but it’s the best we have.

But wait, there's more... Your phone number and home address are likely listed in dozens of online phone directories. (which also operates and is one of the most popular, and they do offer a link to remove your listing. But there are many others. You'll have to hit every one of these online telephone directories to see if they also have "remove me" options.

A few sites that can help you ferret out your personal information online are Fast People Search and PeekYou. If you find traces of yourself online that you want removed, you will have to persuade the owners of the sites hosting those traces to cooperate. Most website owners will have little interest in finding and deleting your information, so that could prove to be a very slow, tedious process. Be polite and persistent. If that doesn’t work, call a lawyer.

It's not so hard to delete an email account. But what about all the emails you've sent? How likely are you to persuade all your contacts to rummage through their emails and delete anything from you? Likely, not likely.

Privacy Is History

The Internet Law Centre is in the United Kingdom, but the Internet has no borders. Solicitor Yair Cohen founded the firm to defend individuals’ rights on the Internet, and one of his services is helping people disappear from the Internet. Some of his clients include former p*rn stars who want to turn over a new career. Cases like that can involve the removal of “tens of thousands” of images and videos, one at a time.

Cohen says, “Some images can be removed on copyright grounds, some can be removed on privacy grounds, some could be removed on harassment. Some projects take eight months to a year. We have to be very stubborn.” So will you, if you want to completely erase yourself from the Internet? Do you have a year to devote to that project?

A few countries have enshrined the right to be forgotten into law, as a way for individuals to request that personal information, videos, or photographs be deleted from search engine databases. In practice, the effect is limited, though. Although the content is no longer discoverable by search engines, it remains online. And the removal requests are limited by jurisdiction.

Reputation management services such as Reputation Defender help individuals, job seekers, and businesses remove or suppress incorrect, embarrassing, malicious, or outdated search results. In most cases, they do this by pushing out new positive content to bury the bad. And it's expensive -- with costs ranging from USD $3,000 to $10,000.

Even if you could delete yourself from the public spaces on the Internet, you would still be in an unknown number of databases maintained by motor vehicle departments, insurers, police, the FBI, the NSA, credit reporting agencies, data brokers, hospitals and doctors, public libraries, newspapers, local government offices, political parties, charities, and so on.

And then there's the dark web, with vast troves of personal data being bought and sold. Most of this information (which may include your name, address, birth date, phone, email, passwords, social security number, driver's license and credit card data) is obtained from massive data breaches that happen with alarming frequency.

Bottom line, it's probably a fools's errand to try to scrub yourself from the Internet, even if you have the time and motivation. Have you tried to delete yourself from the online world? If so, are there any other tools you found helpful? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Breaking Up With the Internet (is hard to do)"

Posted by:

11 Oct 2021

Alright, you can't exactly delete all the data about yourself and potentially your family,but if you don't have any social media accounts to begin with,it should be less of an issue.

All said,it will still be possible to get some info and your efforts could be fruitless,but you don't want to make it easy for somebody.

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
11 Oct 2021

I deal with my online presence in a manner similar to how I handle my real world presence. When at home, and inside, I expect privacy. When I walk out my front (or back) door, I expect absolutely no privacy whatsoever. Period. I try to not say, write, or do anything I would not want others to see/hear/read, etc., when in public, and I do the same when online.

I publish posts to Facebook, and other social media (including here), but before pressing the "post" button, I read over what I have written and ask myself if I really want to post this. If I still do, I press the button. If not, I select and delete what I have written, and 'go on my way'. I treat all social media the same. If I don't do things I'd want to keep 'secret', then I won't have to worry about privacy so much.

As I see it, the main reason to want privacy on the Internet is to protect ones identity from being stolen. To that end, around the time I retired, I froze all my credit bureau accounts, so if someone does succeed in getting enough information about me to steal my identity, they will still be unable to get at my financial self (Financial me is frozen). While there may be other reasons to steal someone's identity, I suspect the greatest motive by far is generally financial in nature, so I further suspect that as long as financial me is frozen, I am relatively safe from that issue.

All in all, I no longer have any interest in going to the college of my choice (did that), or in getting that job I have always dreamed of (did that too), and I am not at all concerned about what others think about me because I have worked my entire life to be a me I like, so I am very good company for myself. There has been only one person in my life whose opinion about me mattered one way or the other, and she passed away a few years ago (I'll be with her when my time comes). All in all, what you see is what you get. If you do not like me, that is your issue, not mine. If you do like me, maybe we can become friends. Either way, I am happy with who I am, so privacy is not much of an issue for me any more.

For anyone who reads this, and who has not yet ticked off getting to go to the college of your choice, or getting that dream job, take a lesson from an old timer, work on being or becoming someone you would like to share time with, and treat others with as much respect and consideration as you want for yourself. Protect your financial self from the threat of identity theft by establishing the credit you need, then freeze all your credit bureau accounts (remember to safeguard your credit bureau account access information for when/if you need to get a car, a house, etc.), and most importantly, think about what you post online before you press the 'post' button.



Posted by:

11 Oct 2021

Thank you for your insightful, thoughtful, and detailed comments, Ernest! I feel the exact same way. In my case the only social media platform that I use is LinkedIn. Likewise, I keep my eyes like a hawk on my finances. In addition, I remain on guard against the hucksters, scammers, spammers, cyber-criminals, fakers, and other miscreants. Fortunately, Bob has good good advice regarding that in his newsletters and website.

Thank you Bob for another informative article!

Posted by:

11 Oct 2021

Tumblr is not social media.
I have never used ANY kind of social media because I value my privacy.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Not sure why you say that. From Wikipedia: "Tumblr is an American microblogging and social networking website... The service allows users to post multimedia and other content to a short-form blog. Users can follow other users' blogs."

Posted by:

Brian B
11 Oct 2021

Advice I was given in my teens many decades ago:-
"Your future lies before you like a bed of snow,
Be careful how you tread it, for every step will show"

Posted by:

Norman Rosen
12 Oct 2021

Ernest said it all. I have never understood the necessity of putting your entire life online for others to see and criticize. We live in a time where there is no forgiveness for what are perceived as present-day sins.

Posted by:

13 Oct 2021

Thank you Bob - yours today was almost a parody of futility regarding the Internet's possession of oneself.

I so liked Ernest's response - he and I are so alike - I feel it in my bones but I bet that I am older than him hahaha. I have never liked my photograph taken - who knows why? - but that sums up the way I feel - just want to be private for my lady and daughter and fanatical about privacy of fiscal matter.

Posted by:

13 Oct 2021

Not just internet items that live on, also many records of telephone calls made decades ago exist somewhere today and anyone with enough money to waste can retrieve them and use for nefarious purposes.

Posted by:

14 Oct 2021

I have saved every E-Mail you have sent to me in it's own fie folder. This one is top's. Over the past years I have been "Documenting" my Family-History, it's amazing the information out there,
even on people who have long passed on. If we can acquire such info on people over past 200 years, when there was only "Pen/Paper", imagine what we acquire today. FANTASTIC ARTICLE DAVE.

Posted by:

Bob Kinsler
15 Oct 2021

Even in death your post, emails and facebook accounts still continue. As I keep seeing post, facebook notifications for birthdates of those I know have passed into the next world, yet I do remember them.

Posted by:

23 Oct 2021

"...boasting that they are "invisible" or "completely anonymous" on the Internet...".

That is a lie! I never said 'completely'.
No Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, Snapchat, Instagram, Flickr, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Skype, Youtube, Tumblr.
No google/apple accounts. No smartphones/accounts/SIMs.
Very minimal or limited exposure in searchers/directories for correct and/or correlated name/address/phone/ties metadata
Very minimal historical credit portfolio, loans, credit cards or even request for scores. Physical address guarded more than my wallet.
Online presence/identify does not mimic that of real-life.

All I am trying to say is that it may not be that easy (even if you started from getgo w/your guards up) but one can keep a fairly private life.
Starting with NEVER giving AskBob your real first/last names… ;)

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