Go back 100 years, and very often the only record of your existence would have been a tea stained birth certificate that your mum kept in a brown envelope in the bureaux at the top of the stairs.
Jump forward a century to the present day, and it’s pretty safe to say that from the moment you’re born, your digital footprint (or digi-print) becomes imprinted out there on the silicon sand dunes of www. before you’ve even taken your first step.
Of course, I, just like many of you reading this, was toddling around in nappies long before the explosion of the internet. But, even for quadragenarians like myself (I know, I wouldn’t believe it from my profile pic at the bottom of this page either), the proofs of my existence have by now been sucked into the web waves just the same as practically every single millennial baby that has been born and will be born from now on – and yours have too.
Photos of your sea bass supper that you uploaded to Facebook during one of those moments when you were under the mistaken impression that anyone cares. Those wonderfully interesting tweets that tell the world that you are walking to work. The boring and predictable unique and insightful comments you have made on other people’s blogs. Amazon purchases. Takeaway orders. Tax registrations. Parking fines. Internet banking. PayPal. Whatever it is, if you’re active on the web, then you’re leaving a trail of digital breadcrumbs that anybody with the right skills can follow in your wake.
Indeed, not only is your footprint probably bigger than you have ever conceived, the idea of being able to completely remove said footprint from every server on the net is probably unfathomable to most.
And rightly so – if you think that it’s impossible to completely remove any evidence that you ever existed from the ol’ interweb, then you’re probably right.
But, that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a damn good try, and in fact it is very possible to go back and cover over many of your digital footprints with fresh dustings of silicon sand. Here’s how…
This is the place to start your quest for invisibility. Everything that you do on the internet from here on should be done via private browsing. Each browser will have a different way to browse privately, but you should find it straight forward enough. Just go to the main menu and work from there. If in doubt just enter “private browsing” into Google and the name of the browser that you use.
What private browsing does is remove all of your internet search history from your computer as you go along – by which I mean, your computer won’t keep a record of where you go and what you do online. It won’t help you disappear completely, however, as very often your IP address will still be recorded by the websites that you visit, but it’s a good starting point nonetheless.
A better option is to go for an anonymous browser such as Tor. Without going into the ins and outs of it, Tor will allow you to browse the net with complete anonymity. Any sites that you choose to visit won’t be able to record your IP address and there will be no record of you when you leave them either.
Using an anonymous browser will enable you to move forward from here on knowing that your online exposure isn’t increasing. Watching poorly acted pornographic features about plumbers armed with big, erm, wrenches fixing ladies’ washing machines? Paranoid that the NSA is monitoring your Facebook account to see if you’re taking sick days from work to play Warcraft? Well, now you can without the worry that either your wife or men in black suits are going to break the door down while you’re sat in your boxers eating Doritos.
Covering Up Your Previous Tracks
Now you’re browsing privately, you can begin work on the process of removing as many fossil traces of your digital footprints in the sand as possible, and that means cataloguing every account you’ve signed up for. To remove yourself from the internet means sacrificing a lot of the conveniences that the internet provides. But, you can’t have it both ways unfortunately. So, if you’re serious about disappearing completely from the web, everything’s got to go.
This won’t be easy. Especially if you’re one of those people who loves signing up for things without giving much thought to them afterwards. You’ll need to make a list of every social network you have signed up for, including the ones you applied to join while they were in Beta or that looked like they may have a future. So, we’re not just talking old platforms such as Myspace and Bebo, you may even have an account with Ello which you stopped using as soon as you released it’s about as much fun as a trip to the clinic.
With social networks, it may be that you can’t remember whether you deactivated the account or not. As such you may want to try entering your name into Google alongside the social network and some facts that are specific to you such as place of birth or interests to narrow it down. It may be that you like Morris dancing or recording the number plates of buses, in which case you will be a very unique individual, and you should be able to determine very quickly if you still exist on those sites or not (I don’t think, for instance, that there’s another Martin Butters out there who would list reciting the entire Um Bongo song in 8 seconds as a key achievement on their LinkedIn profile – so I know that’s me on there).
Remember to search images as well as this can also bear fruit. But don’t be surprised if you find some random pics of you in embarrassing situations on social networks from people you didn’t even know that you had met. Pics taken at parties where someone has tagged you for example. Remember that night you drank 10 beers and decided to do an impression of a Gollum searching for his precious in the gutter? No, you don’t – but the internet does.
You’ll also need to consider email accounts, sites offering freebies or cheap deals that you may have found appealing, and make a note of anything you may have deactivated, but not necessarily deleted (as it’s very important to remember that the two are not the same).
If in doubt, why not ask a friend or family member if they have any alternative emails for you, or if they’re still connected to you on a social network that you have given up on (though if you’re into Morris Dancing you can be forgiven if you have no friends to turn to for help).
In no time you’ll probably start finding accounts for you all over the place.
Delete Your Accounts
The next step is to delete every account that you can. If you remember the login details all the better. If not, you may have to jump through a few hoops, answer security questions and invest a little more time. (Again, if you’re a Morris dancer you’ll probably find that jumping through hoops is the least ridiculous thing you’ve attempted today (unless you’ve tried my Um Bongo thing, that is.)
You may even find that some accounts are trickier to delete than you first thought. But don’t panic, there’s always sites looking to lend a helping hand (not for free, of course – they’re not that helpful), and Abine.com is just one of those sites. For a nominal fee this site will work to delete a variety of your online information for you. From personal information, photos and information held on data sites, they’ll work to remove the lot.
Even better is the fact that they then scour the net every 3 months and do it again. That way, if you’ve been online and not had the opportunity to use a site like Tor, or if you’ve scrabbling around pissed in the gutter again and are worried about photographic evidence, you can sleep safe in the knowledge that they’re not far behind you cleaning up as you go.
It’s also worth noting that not every aspect of your information that is online has been put there by you. A friend or family member may be uploading images or information about you that you don’t want in the public forum. The image beneath being a prime example:
As such, it pays to use Google Alerts. Google Alerts allows you to be informed every time your named is picked up by Google’s search engine. That said, if your name is John Smith, you’ll probably be getting more notifications than you can handle, most of which will be sod all to do with you. But, if you have one of those obscure names that brought you much ridicule at school (like Butters, for example), you may finally have a reason to thank your mum and dad for their choice as you’ll more often than not only be informed when it’s something relevant to you.
So that’s it, in next to no time you’ve become the online version of Arya Stark. A faceless warrior moving around Westernet as you please …
Scratch that – you’re not that heroic. You’ll probably just do what most people are doing with their new found freedom – downloading the latest episode of Game of Thrones the day before it’s out in the UK, without worrying about the police turning up, which they probably wouldn’t have anyway.
(Disclaimer – in no way whatsoever does markITwrite condone piracy of any kind – and Daenerys Targaryen is the rightful heir to the iron throne!!)
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