Sit back for a second and try to remember the very first time you started using the Internet. It could have been in the 90s or early 2000s. It could have been yesterday.
From the moment we started using the Internet, we made a tiny imprint on its digital walls—an imprint that basically says “I was here” and leaves a mark for everyone to see some part of our digital personas.
The Internet is not a private place. If you think about it, the entire Internet is a kind of gigantic Facebook—someplace where somehow, throughout the years, our entire lives and personal information gathered there exposing itself to the entire world.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the Internet was like an Etch-a-Sketch? Where we could just shake the computer and make it erase all the information, pictures, and personal histories from the inexplicably massive digital fortress we spend so much time on?
Though it’s not that easy, there are ways to delete yourself almost completely from the Internet. It’s nearly impossible to suggest that you’ll be able to disappear from the Internet. If someone really wanted to know something about you, they could probably find it.
However, you can make yourself less unknown and keep a lower profile online so that your information and private matters are, well, more private and secure from prying eyes.
Too much of our lives are online now. Think about how much we do on the Internet. We pay bills online, shop online, date online, read online…everything is online. Consider how much more of our personal information is online since the start of the pandemic.
It’s a lot.
If you’re looking to minimize your digital footprint and keep some privacy in a world that thrives on exposing every single detail of our lives, then here’s how to do it.
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Can You Delete Yourself from the Internet?
The short answer is no.
As mentioned before, you can definitely reduce how much of your information is online and, that alone can be more helpful than you might think.
One thing to keep in mind is that you might not realize what kind of information is online without your knowledge. If someone did a simple search of your name right now, they could find your address, age, salary, who you voted for, and even whether you had a beach wedding this past summer.
Even if you didn’t voluntarily put all this information online, it’s out there, and anyone has access to it.
This is partly because the US doesn’t have strict data-privacy laws. What that means is that there aren’t laws that sufficiently protect the privacy of citizens from rampant data brokering or “background checks” on websites like WhitePages or BeenVerified, which gather general information like addresses and voting patterns.
While most of us will voluntarily sign up for social sites and online banking, nobody ever bothers to read the privacy bits that we’re forced to check off before we continue registering on a website.
It’s not like we have an option anyway, because if we don’t check off those little boxes before we finish the registration on a site, then we won’t really have access to much of anything and we’ll live a very limited existence online that will hinder us from performing simple tasks on certain sites, like paying the electric bill.
Step 1: Google Yourself
The first thing to do to gauge exactly how much information is publicly available on the Internet is to start with a Google search. Type in your name and see what comes up. This will be a great first guide to reducing your online presence and information.
It’s best to do this search while you’re in an incognito window. This will prevent your browser from doing any type of auto-fills and look at your online presence from a completely neutral point as if it were someone else performing the search.
You’ll want to pay close attention to data brokers. These are companies that can get personal information from public records and social sites and compile it into databases, which they then sell to third parties.
And before you ask, yes, this is actually legal, though the inner workings of the legality of it are shady.
Some of the most common data broker sites are Spokeo, Intelius, BeenVerified, and WhitePages. See what kind of information you can find on those sites and erase it. While you won’t erase everything, you’ll at least be making it more difficult for someone to find the basics about your life with a simple surface search.
Step 2: Explore Your Browser’s Privacy Controls
The thing with the Internet is that sites like Google, for example, try to enhance the users’ experience by making sure that they don’t have to retype passwords and usernames often, or that you don’t have to go through yet another rabbit hole to get to the same thing you were searching before.
This is the main reason when you’re digging through website after website trying to find the perfect end table, you’ll often start seeing furniture ads on Instagram or seeing random pop-ups of the table you were looking at on a random site that you might not frequent as much.
Deleting your cookies in each browser is a good way to maintain a bit of anonymity during searches and other personal uses you may have for the Internet, whether for work or for leisure.
With the online logs that parties often share with one another without our knowledge, users have to keep in mind that hackers have a simple time inserting themselves in the process and wreak havoc on everyone involved.
If you want to delete your cookies and make sure that the browser you’re using doesn’t continue saving your information, here’s what you need to do.
- Go to each browser you use (Google Chrome, Safari, Firefox, etc) and manually turn off cookies.
- To prevent further browser fingerprinting, experts recommend users think outside the box with browsers. Browsers like Brave and DuckDuckGo help users maintain privacy by blocking third-party cookies that track Internet activity.
Step 3: Clean Up Online Accounts
For some, the idea of deleting social media accounts or any type of social website of which they’re a part of sounds ludicrous. Especially since the start of the pandemic, social media became a sort of savior amid all the chaos involving quarantine.
But if you’re truly serious about erasing yourself from the Internet, or at least maintaining a much more private online existence, this is a crucial step to achieve that.
Think hard before you do this, as you will lose everything on the accounts unless you take the time to save all the information from your profiles to keep in a safe place somewhere inside your computer.
Another option is to restrict access to your online accounts. There are some people that continue to use social media but that have empty profiles, add no friends, and basically, they have to approve anything and everything pertaining to their profile.
Keep in mind that cleaning up online accounts involves not only social media accounts, including the ones you probably forgot about like that old MySpace page. On top of deleting, or restricting access on social media sites, you’ll also want to delete information or profiles from online shops, even if you only used them once.
Typically, online stores will save customers’ information to make it easier for them to shop with them in the future and not have to go through the trouble of entering their credit card information.
Be aware that not all sites are super happy to see their customers delete their accounts with them. Some may even cause a bit of a hassle before you can finish deleting your personal information from them.
Step 4: Remove Yourself From Outdated Search Results
Remember the first step? Googling yourself will let you see exactly where you’re showing up and under what context. And you can actually manipulate what people can see when they search for you online.
For example, let’s say that a previous employer still has your picture up on their website. When you reach out to them to remove you, they do so right away. However, there’s a good chance that when someone searches online for you, that the old link will still show up even if it leads to a dead page.
Well, you can actually remove the outdated search result by changing a few settings.
Google offers an online tool that helps users remove themselves from outdated searches. It won’t happen right away, as you’re essentially submitting a request to the Google team to take down the search result. But, it’s useful to clean up your online presence.
All you have to do is go through the Google URL removal tool and follow instructions. Keep in mind that there are an array of reasons Google might not go through with the requestor even remove the cached info, but it’s still worth a try and it won’t take too much of your time.
Step 5: Remove Email Accounts
This one is just as hard as removing social media sites. Think about all the information you receive by email. We use email for everything and it’s become one of the major gateways we use to maintain communication with one another.
Depending on the type of email account you have, the steps to delete the email may vary. However, deleting email accounts should definitely be one of the last things to do as you normally have to have an email to delete all the other accounts or profiles online.
One Last Thing
Remember to be patient. Chances are that you’ve maintained an online presence for a long, long time. Throughout all the years that you’ve been active online, you’ve visited thousands of websites and signed up for millions of things.
You cannot complete this entire process in a day. It will probably take a little while to remove yourself from the Internet as much as possible. Always remember, though, that no matter how hard you try to erase yourself completely, the Internet will always remember something.
It’s nearly impossible to extinguish an online presence, no matter how minuscule or insignificant it was, to begin with.