Last week, Radiohead — one of the biggest bands on the planet — “disappeared” from the internet.
Only, they didn’t really… Their albums were still available for purchase, their Discogs profile was still live, their rare press interviews were still searchable via Google, their videos remained on YouTube. All they did was delete a few years of social media posts and place a cool fading/decaying filter on their homepage. Considering their well-publicised distrust of social media and very private media profile, it wasn’t much of a disappearance.
But as imperfect as it was, it got us thinking… Is it possible to disappear from the internet completely? Not just wiping your socials, but everything. Every image. Every mention. Every account. Everything.
Total internet suicide.
“In theory yes. But don’t expect it to happen overnight. Or even over a number of weeks,” explains London-based social media lawyer Yair Cohen. “If you’ve spent a large chunk of your life on the internet then it could take months and a lot of creative negotiating…”
Yair should know; his firm The Internet Law Centre specialize in removing all traces of identity from the internet, and often work with ex-adult entertainment industry clients who are looking to put the past behind them and start a new chapter in their lives.
“In some cases we’ve had to remove tens of thousands of images and videos for just one client alone,” he explains. “You can do it, but you have to work hard and delicately. Remove them one by one. Each case has unique circumstances. 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.”
Luckily, for those of us who aren’t pornstars, it’s not quite so tricky to achieve online anonymity. That said, there’s still a huge amount of work to do and — unless you hire a legal team, which could costs thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars — there’s a lot of leg-work to do yourself. Here’s how to commit internet suicide in five not-so-easy steps.
Step 1: Delete Your Socials
Well, duh. From Facebook right the way through to your long lost MySpace page, by way of that Pinterest phase you went through and the Linkedin page you never use — all of these should be the first to go. We won’t waste time explaining the delete route on every social media site because you’re not stupid and the information is already out there. However, be aware that “delete” and “deactivate” are two very different things; deactivate means your data, images and profile are still active, just no longer public.
Facebook, for example, will still show posts and comments from deactivated profiles in archived posts. If you want real full-strength internet suicide, you’re going to need to delete all day long. Facebook doesn’t make it very clear how to do that, so here’s the direct link to cancel your account.
If you use Gmail then be careful when deleting your G+ profile. You’ll need an email address until the very last step of this erasure process, so make sure you do things in the correct order. To delete G+ but not your entire Google profile visit this link to select the Google services you want to delete.
Once that’s done, write a list of every social media account you’ve ever set up and go through it systematically. Services like Account Killer are handy portals for information on how to delete accounts on the majority of popular social media sites.
Step 2: Now Delete the Rest…
Dating, gaming and gambling site profiles. Blogs you’ve written, content sites you’ve uploaded articles to. Forum accounts, freelance job sites, Paypal, Amazon, eBay, YouTube, Skype… it’s all gotta go.
Delete every site you’ve ever signed up to, commented on, played on, hooked-up through, bought products from, found work through… From recent shopping sites to old forums you got pwned on 10 years ago. The works.
“There is no quick and easy route here,” states Boston-based privacy expert Robert Siciliano with BestCompanys.com. “It’s not in these site’s interest to delete your data. Data is an asset you’ve agreed to give to them by signing up. Some of these sites will involve you getting in touch directly and having to state your case several times over.”
A great tip, if your inbox housekeeping game isn’t strong, is to search your inbox for the terms “confirm email address” and “validate email address” to remind yourself of various sites you’ve signed up to and used in the past. Then search for your email addresses on Pipl and see what it brings up. It’s not 100 percent comprehensive, but it is pretty thorough.
If you’ve created a profile or account using an old email address that is no longer active, Robert suggests getting in touch with the website directly. Unfortunately, they won’t always play ball. “In these cases sometimes your only course of action revolves around deploying the legal system,” says Robert. “By putting legal pressure on them via your attorney you may get them to budge.”
“This isn’t ideal advice for people who want to do it personally,” agrees Yair. “But once you’re stuck you really get stuck – there’s no telephone number or live chat with so many of these sites.” Finally, if you can’t remove the account but can log-in, falsify all information on yourself.
Step 3: Vanity Search HARD
With all social traces of yourself removed, now you need to find and delete all mentions of your name, images and profiles stored by background check/data collection agencies.
Sign out of your search engine accounts (being signed in will skew the results), search for your name on every search engine (not just Google) and try different combinations, such as your name + places you’ve worked, your name + places you’ve lived, your name + date of birth etc.
Spend time ruthlessly checking every search engine for every mention, and make a note of each site that holds your details or image as you’re going to need to contact them individually.
You need to check the press, forum chats, newsletters and other miscellaneous articles for anything mentioning you. Wherever you see your name or personal details, take note of the site.
If you’re aware of the use of your image, or you’re the subject of a meme that’s somehow gone viral, using reverse image searches either on Google or sites such as Image Raider will identify the locations where your image has been stored or shared.
Background Check / Data Collection Agencies
Like it or not, there are hundreds of companies out there storing your data. Some are wholesome phone directories that will just require a polite unlist request; others trawl the web, creating profiles on you for employment background checks, sales and marketing research companies and the public to find you.
Finding out which company has information on you and what info they have is a needle-in-haystack scenario. Robert reckons the best way to find out is by performing the same searches described above.
Step 4: Request Removals
This is the hardest and most labor-intensive step of the process: Get in touch with the companies, site editors, webmasters or whoever is contactable and politely request all data on you is removed. Most websites have clear contact details listed somewhere, while others may take a little digging using sites such as WhoIs to locate the domain owner.
On contact, some sites will respond accordingly. Others may take a little persuading and request all manner of ID as proof. Others may completely ignore you. In these instances, legal action may be required.
European & US Laws
Just to make things more complicated, depending where you live, you can request removals based on different laws. In Europe, under the European Human Rights Act, people have the right to their own likeness, which effectively provides copyright over use of your image anywhere online.
“Every individual owns the image of their complexion,” explains Yair. “You own the image of your face. It’s a new concept that under the right to a private life, which is part of the Human Rights Act, you have the right to demand that image can’t be used on that website.
“It’s harder in the US; they can issue the right to take-down under the DMCA which is copyright-related and was created for the benefit of the entertainment industry. Individuals can use it but they have to make a statement to say they have copyright over the image.”
Other legal techniques used to remove content include blocking from countries via internet service providers (if the content can be proved to lead to harassment or be an infringement of privacy) or contacting the server which is often in another country.
“We’ve had instances where an image is placed in a website in eastern Europe and the webmaster doesn’t want to work with us. So we find a source who will listen to us,” explains Yair. “The website might not, but the server will… And they may be based in America or Europe, so they’re more receptive to our requests. The hosts don’t have a choice as they’re liable. So they’ll try and communicate with the website owner, if they don’t hear back then they shut it down.”
Third-Party Data-Deletion Companies
When removing yourself from data collection and background check companies you can take a shortcut and employ the services of a third party company who will endure the many hoops that data brokers and background checkers require you to jump through. For just over a hundred dollars per year, companies such as Delete Me can ensure you are removed from the major data collection agencies and remain removed as long as your subscription is paid and up-to-date.
However, these companies can’t offer 100 percent removal, so you still need to ensure you’re also aware of every location your data is held.
The Wayback Machine
If you want to completely disappear from the entire internet, that means tackling archived content on the Wayback Machine, too. First you need to find the content, which is tricky, considering the search database is URL-based. Then you need to find the host or the owner of the domain.
“It’s possible, but very difficult. Most cases I’ve had with Wayback Machine content removal has been on the grounds of privacy,” states Yair. “If you can get hold of the website that has the content, if it’s still live, then you have to go to them and ask them to remove it. There is a code that the operator of the website can add to the URL and that will effectively remove it from the way back machine. It’s complicated, but possible.”
Step 5: Delete Your Email Address
The final — and easiest — stage of your digital Houdini act. If you’ve completed all the stages above, you’ve had proof or actively identified that your data, image and profile has been removed you have no need for your email address any more. It shouldn’t surprise you that deleting an account with major email providers such isn’t the most straightforward process. But, compared to what you’ve just been through, it’s a walk in the park.
If you’ve managed to successfully complete all these steps, then congratulations! You are now effectively anonymous online. However, staying that way is anything but straightforward, and you’ll need to be very careful about what data you enter into websites from now on.
Still, if you’ve gone to this level of effort, you probably have better things to be doing than using the internet. Switch off the computer, step outside, and bask in your newfound nameless freedom…