Maybe it’s time to start again. Maybe this modern life of ours, in which you’re totally at the mercy of any stranger who wants to pick a fight with you, is for the birds. Maybe you’re on the run from a number of disreputable people who think you owe them money. For whatever reason, you’ve decided to burn down your old life, cut off all ties, and erase your presence from the internet.
You’ve taken on a path that’s challenging, but not impossible. Here’s where to begin.
First, Mask Your Footsteps
Before you begin deleting your accounts, know this: even if you turn off all of your public profiles and delete your email addresses, you’re going to leave a trail of digital breadcrumbs on the internet–unless you take certain steps. At a minimum, using TOR to mask your browser history, and PGP to secure your communications are critical steps to ensure your anonymity.
TOR (The Onion Router) has been around for a while. Initially conceived by the US navy as a way for dissidents to communicate securely within repressive countries, it has evolved into a secret net-behind-the-net known as the Darkweb. The Darkweb and its contents represent enough fodder for an entirely separate how-to, so for now, let’s stick with the basics. TOR works to anonymize your internet history by working to rout your internet traffic through a variety of different nodes, provided by volunteers all around the world. Recently, TOR has evolved into its own distinct internet browser, like Chrome or Safari, thus making its use particularly easy. Just install and launch, and you’re already nearly untraceable.
There’s one minor caveat: by installing TOR on your home computer, you are leaving some room for clever hackers to find out who you are. For additional security, install TOR on a USB drive, and then run it on a computer at a library or an internet café–somewhere not traceable directly to your address.
PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) is a decent way to ensure that the communications you send across the internet are enciphered. Again, if you want to remain unnoticed on the internet, it’s good practice to ensure that only the intended recipients can receive your messages, especially because some of the following steps will involve talking to people.
Unlike TOR, PGP isn’t what most would call ‘user friendly.’ You’ll need to download a program to use it, and there are a multitude, but the one I recommend is called Gpg4Win.
- Download Gpg4Win, and install it. During installation, make sure to select a component called GPA.
- Once Gpg is installed, open up ‘GNU Privacy Assistant – Key Manager,’ and select ‘New Key’ from the ‘Keys’ menu.
- Create your key, and generate a backup. Save this to a USB drive. (The file will be a .asc, but it will open readily enough in Notepad.) When you open the file, you’ll see a long and random collection of letters and numbers between the phrases ‘—–BEGIN PGP PUBLIC KEY BLOCK—–‘ and ‘—–END PGP PUBLIC KEY BLOCK—–‘. Everything between those to phrases is your public key.
- If you want to communicate with someone, first share your public key with them. Then, open up ‘GNU Privacy Assistant – Clipboard,’ type in a plaintext message, and encrypt it using the key you sent. Send the encrypted message as you would normally, using email for example.
- To receive an encrypted message, first get your sender’s public key. Save it into a text file, then import it by going to ‘GNU Privacy Assistant – Key Manager,’ opening the “Keys” menu, and hitting ‘Import Keys.’ To decrypt a message, go back to ‘GNU Privacy Assistant – Clipboard,’ paste the encrypted message into the text box, then hit ‘decrypt,’ and select the sender’s public key.
The two steps above aren’t foolproof. If you misconfigure TOR, or share your private key instead of your public key, you will be hosed. Use these tools correctly, however, and you will be safe from all but the most in-depth scrutiny.
Non-Social Media Accounts
Here’s a statistic that might blow your mind. According to the security firm Dashlane, the average American has one hundred thirty accounts per email address. Your in-real-life identity as associated with too many accounts for any one person to remember, and if you want to scrub that identity from the internet, you’ll need to track them all down.
The good news is, you have a few tools available to help you, apart from your memory itself. The first tool is actually your own inbox. Most sites, once you join them, will send you an email that welcomes you to their service. Phrases that ask you to confirm your new account are common in these emails, and if you search for them in your inbox, you should be able to dig up some sites you haven’t thought about in years. If you save old passwords in your browser, that’s another avenue to explore. In Chrome, hit the hamburger menu at the top right of your screen, then click on ‘Settings.’ Scroll down all the way to the bottom of the settings screen, where it shows ‘advanced settings,’ and click it. Keep scrolling until you reach a field called “passwords and forms.” Lastly, click on ‘manage passwords.’ This will show you a list of just about every service you’re signed up for, and probably a few you don’t remember having. You can even view these passwords by clicking on the black dots, then clicking ‘show,’ and entering the master password for your computer.
Then, there are app permissions. There are probably several services you use regularly, which are tied to your Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, or Amazon account, etc. etc. You don’t have a unique username or password for these services, but rather, these services use your Facebook credentials instead, for example. What happens if you delete your Facebook first, before disabling these apps? A lot of them might simply continue existing, while simultaneously locking you out. This would make deleting these services a lot more time-intensive.
Fortunately, there is a tool that makes cleaning out these app-connected services into a piece of cake. It’s called MyPermissions, and it allows users to find every app or website that’s connected to your major social media accounts. You don’t even need to make a new account to use this tool, as it simply installs into your browser as a plugin.
As a final aid to memory, there’s Google. You probably have several very recognizable screennames and forum handles floating around the internet, and if you’re like most people, you’ve used them on multiple services. For the sake of thoroughness, use multiple search engines, such as Yahoo, Bing, Ask.com, Baidu, and so on.
Once you found and made a list of all these accounts, set about deleting them. Some of these accounts will have a user-friendly deletion process. Some of these accounts will require that you talk to a site administrator for permanent, final deletion. This is where PGP comes in handy. Once you’ve done all this, you’re ready to move on to the primary hubs of life on the internet.
Major Social Media Platforms
Once you’ve taken steps to anonymize your online footprints, your next step is to delete your social media accounts.
So, here’s some good news, and some bad news. The good news is that you can definitively erase your presence from the major social media platforms. The bad news is they both platforms have done their best to make this process inscrutable. Fortunately for you, you’re reading this guide.
Facebook’s deactivation process is buried in the “Security” menu, a subset of the account menu. There’s an option there to deactivate your Facebook account, but in order to fully delete it, you’ll have to email a member of Facebook’s support staff.
Twitter makes it a bit easier to delete your account. At the bottom of your account settings page, you’ll find a “delete my account” link, and the only confirmation step required is to enter your password.
Some estimates put Tumblr at 300 million active users. A lot of people in their teens and twenties use Tumblr, and if you’re one of them, the staff has made deleting your account relatively painless. Just click on your account icon (the vaguely person-shaped figure in the upper right), scroll to the bottom of the page, and hit “delete my account.” You’ll be prompted for your username and password, and given a slightly guilt-inducing appeal to stay.
Lastly, there’s LinkedIn. Deleting your LinkedIn profile is accomplished from the “Privacy and Settings” tab, located in a hover menu under where your profile picture appears in the upper-right hand part of the screen. Then, find the ‘Account’ link, located at the bottom of a cluster of tabs on the left-hand side of your screen. Under “Helpful Links” you’ll find a button that says ‘Close Your Account.”
Scramble Your Information
Once you’ve gathered a list of all your major and minor accounts, you’ll no-doubt find a few that are resistant to deletion. Those erasure-proof accounts have become fewer in number over the years, as right-to-privacy advocates have made their mark, but they still exist. Even contacting webmasters or customer support might not get you far, so while you still have control over your information, you should scramble it up.
Generate a fake name, a new email address, a different city and birthdate, plus a new biography. Be inventive–don’t use any details from your actual personal life. While you’re at it, be sure to use TOR, as well as a computer that isn’t traceable to your house, while you set up your new details. Otherwise, your invented history will be directly traceable to you.
Unlist Your Number
If you’re really serious about going off the grid, changing your phone number is probably one of the first steps you’ll take. People might still be able to call that number if it’s listed in various directories, however, so here are some steps to take in order to make sure that number is anonymous as well.
First, call your cellphone or landline provider, and make sure to have them mark your number as unlisted.
Second, sign up for the Do Not Call registry in order to ensure that telemarketers don’t have your phone number and can’t call you.
Third, the three main credit-reporting agencies also have access to your phone number by default. Contact them in order to make sure they keep your number private.
There’s a bit of lag time involved here. It takes six months for your phone number to be fully unpublished by the white paper once it’s unlisted, and one month for the Do Not Call registry to take full effect. Be sure to plan accordingly.
Delete Your Email
Your email is one of the credentials that you’re who you say you are. Basically, it’s the one way you’ll be able to get in and delete or change your accounts, and once it’s gone, the deletion process will be a lot more cumbersome. Thus, you shouldn’t delete your email accounts until you’re certain that most traces of your old identity are completely erased from the internet.
For Gmail, navigate to the upper right hand corner of the screen and hit ‘Account.’ On the following screen, navigate to ‘Delete your account or services,’ which is located under ‘Account Preferences.’
The same process mostly applies to Microsoft Outlook. Simply navigate to outlook.com, click on the account settings tab, and find the deletion option. For Hotmail, which is now also owned by Microsoft, the method is exactly the same.
The internet has a long memory.
You may have erased all traces of your real-world identity, but sometimes things just reappear, like the ocean coughing up sea glass and driftwood. The only answer to this tendency is vigilance. Do a few searches once a week, or once a month, to make sure that everything is as you left it. If you choose to build a new life online, make sure that you can tear it all down as quickly as you built it back up again.
- The TOR Project – https://www.torproject.org/
- PGP Encryption – https://www.gpg4win.org/
- MyPermissions – https://mypermissions.org/
- Do Not Call Registry – https://www.donotcall.gov/
- Just Delete Me – http://justdelete.me/