Unless you’ve been living ‘off the grid’ – and we mean truly off the grid – your entire life, it’s impossible to erase yourself from public records, let alone the internet.
To truly avoid your information getting out there, you would either had to have never logged onto a website in your entire life, or been accepted into the Witness Protection Program, both of which options are pretty far-fetched for the average person living in a developed nation.
However, you can get pretty close to eliminating all evidence on the web that you ever existed, as suspicious as that might seem. Though you’ll have to be extra careful not to expose yourself in the process, there are a number of steps you can take towards complete online anonymity.
For one thing, as more and more people grow weary of their digital lives, it makes sense that developers have taken it upon themselves to create utilities with this specific exhaustion in mind. Likewise, there are non-proprietary measures you can take to extinguish the flame of your virtually connected persona as well.
Here we’ll take a look at the pros and cons of all the various measures you can take in the quest for internet obscurity.
Check all your privacy settings
Go to each of the websites you use most often and see what level of privacy you have set. This is especially important for social networks. And if you have included personal information on your profiles, consider removing, reducing or hiding this. In addition, we all sign up for hundreds of newsfeeds and email newsletters, but often only read a fraction of these. Unsubscribe from the ones you don't read will reduce the data available for personal profiling.
If you have to give an email address to a site for registration, have a secondary email address that you use for just this purpose. This will keep your personal inbox clean, but also misdirect anyone that is using this data for profiling. You could use a disposable email address from services such as Mailinator or AirMail.
Use stealth mode when browsing
The browser you use can also have its security and privacy settings tweaked to make your use of the internet more anonymous. The Chrome browser has Incognito Mode. Internet Explorer includes InPrivate Browsing. Firefox users have Private Window. And Safari users can also switch on private browsing from their browser's security settings.
The Tor internet browser offers high levels of anonymity, as it bounces all of your browser usage across several servers around the world making it impossible for anyone to track your internet sessions. Use anti-tracking tools too. There are a number of additional tools you can use to mask your internet browsing including Disconnect, Ghostery and Blur.
Also, a great deal of the personal information that is now collected comes from social media. Being a little more restrained with your use of these networks will reduce the quantity of data that can be collected about you.
Delete unwanted accounts
It’s obvious that if you don’t want anyone combing through your personal affairs online that you shouldn’t have a Facebook account – the most publicly personal forum of them all – but you should also consider shutting down Twitter. Any Reddit, Tumblr or Instagram account you ever signed up for, no matter how ostensibly anonymous, also has to go.
Then there are the accounts you probably didn’t think of. Google and Apple, for instance, both require cloud-connected accounts for many of their services, while your old MySpace account is probably still out there being lurked on as well.
For those sequestered profiles, for which the login credentials are a mystery at this point, there is (luckily) a tool called AccountKiller that can help mitigate your concern. Since deactivation links are often intentionally tucked away behind a series of bewildering settings menus, this is the ultimate solution for quickly navigating the hard-to-find delete buttons of the digital world.
Use a free kill-all service
After you test the waters with AccountKiller, you may do a self-Google and notice something strange: your face has been wiped from the internet, but your private data is still there. The good news is that there are other similar ‘kill-all’ services designed to aid you in your quest for immunity. Better yet, they don’t cost a thing.
For example, Deseat.me is advertised as a one-stop shop for online self-destruction. Well, put more elegantly, it’s an independent effort to 'clean up your online presence'. By logging into either a Gmail or Outlook account, Deseat.me pries deep into your personal files for any details it can find that are tied to an account. It then provides you, nigh-instantaneously, with direct links to remove those accounts from the public eye.
Of course, in using Deseat.me you have to be comfortable handing over your email address and password to a company that calls itself 'Ctrl Alt Deseat'. You also have to ensure that all of your accounts are tied to the same email address. Otherwise, it won’t take care of every profile of yours that’s ever been created. Either way, it’s a start for saying good riddance to online accounts that spend their time weighing down your conscience.
Use a paid kill-all service
Then again, what if the data you want gone wasn’t created by you at all? What about public records? In that case, we’ll have you know there’s another option, albeit one you’ll have to pay for should your online expunging be that crucial to your mental solace.
As we've warned you elsewhere, websites can betray your privacy. They’re constantly collecting information about you and comparing it with data obtained by other systems to advertise to you and, in some cases, to sell your personal information to other organizations.
These include firms like Intelius, a data broker whose sole purpose is to find out who you are, where you live and what you’ve done. That intel is then passed onto secondary data brokers such as Spokeo, a website that amasses dossiers for anyone who’s interested enough to pay for them.
It’s clear, then, why the existence of such outfits would leave many users paranoid, particularly those who take pride in their aversion to shifty internet practices.
Fortunately, there’s a quick fix, although you’ll have to shell out a modest sum to take advantage of it. For $129 (about £95, AU$165) per year, DeleteMe offers to remove your name from all data-broking sites across the worldwide web.
The company behind this endeavor, Abine, guarantees it can thwart privacy violators year-round. The only catch is that once you cancel, those pesky brokers are bound to return in no time at all.
Use a VPN
A virtual private network, or VPN can prevent online transgressions without forcing you to surrender the many necessities and luxuries the internet provides. And, of course, TechRadar Pro will help you find the right VPN service for you – check out our best VPN services round up.
A VPN can be used to conceal not only your location, but your IP address as well. So if your concern is that you’ll be hacked with the intent of a data breaching, installing a VPN will ensure that your web-surfing is fully locked down (i.e, encrypted) to keep you feel safe online – even if you’re not completely invisible.
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Rob Clymo has been a tech journalist for more years than he can actually remember, having started out in the wacky world of print magazines before discovering the power of the internet. Since he's been all-digital he has run the Innovation channel during a few years at Microsoft as well as turning out regular news, reviews, features and other content for the likes of TechRadar, TechRadar Pro, Tom's Guide, Fit&Well, Gizmodo, Shortlist, Automotive Interiors World, Automotive Testing Technology International, Future of Transportation and Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology International. In the rare moments he's not working he's usually out and about on one of numerous e-bikes in his collection.