I Want to Vanish

Deleting Your Digital Life

Be careful what you post on the internet, including social media sites, once it is up there it is almost impossible to take down.

In some cases someone’s digital past haunts them, and even things that are just not true stay around forever. In 2085 your grandchildren might be reading things about you that were either just not true or you prefer remain private (just because something isn’t a secret, that doesn’t mean you want to share it with the whole world – your political persuasion, sexuality, religion, whatever).

People are only just starting to realise the implications of their digital footprint and how it might come back to haunt them at some stage. We all do silly things that we regret, but now the internet can make it very difficult (the second after something is posted) to leave the past to the past.

When was the last time you read the small print on a social networking site, before telling the whole world all your personal details? No, me neither.

I recently read a story about a British woman who converted to Islam. She tried to delete her Facebook website because she did not want others to discover how she had behaved in her youth.

She said: “Facebook makes it very difficult (to delete history), it takes far too long to delete each individual post on your Facebook page. Weeks later and I’ve managed it. After I left my model agency they deleted my profile, but photos of myself are still online on photographers’ websites.

“They own the photos so there’s nothing I can do except hope nobody searches my name and sees past the extravagant makeup to see it’s me.

“People are perhaps naive about their actions. You can no longer do something stupid and hope nobody notices, it WILL be on Facebook! And it might be funny now but 10 years later maybe not.”

So How Can You Vanish from the Internet?

Cleaning away your digital life means getting rid of the traces you’ve left across the world wide web – the mistakes you made, the embarrassing photos, the unwise/insulting/stupid comments yu made (perhaps when you had a little too much to drink), the terrible social media profiles you made without thinking them through properly where you’ve left too much visible.

It is certainly not easy. The following steps provide a start to reducing your digital footprint and taking back control of your online life.

1) If you have a Facebook account, change every setting in the Privacy tabs to “private” or “not shared” or “off” (there’s a special “privacy settings” shortcut in the blue bar near the top).

2) Find out what photos you’re tagged in on Facebook. These should appear in the Photos tab on the left hand side. If you hover over the picture, a star and a pencil appear in the top right. Choose “Report/remove tag” and pick “I want to untag myself” from the list.

3) If you have a Google Blogger account, delete your profile there. That means that blogposts or comments you’ve made there will vanish.

4) If you’ve got a Tumblr or WordPress blog, delete that too.

Now start using a search engine, and begin searching on your name (put the first name and surname together in quotes; this works in pretty much all search engines to identify that as a phrase you’re after). Note that some sites, such as newspapers, generally won’t agree to removing your name if you’ve appeared in a news or other story.

5) If you’ve posted in forums, go back and see if you can delete your posts.

If you can’t, try asking the administrators of the sites (nicely) if they can remove your post.

Make sure you prepare a very good reason why you want something removed.

6) Remove any photos you’ve added to sites such as Flickr or, of course, Facebook. Try searching on your name in Google Images (put quotes around your name) and see what comes up: then visit those sites and ask if they would remove the photos.

7) Keep doing searches on your name and finding out what turns up, and getting in touch with the owners of the sites. Be prepared to get rebuffed, especially if the site is in the US.

8) Be aware that anything that you’ve posted outside Facebook, Blogger or WordPress might still live on in the Internet Archive – which aims to crawl the entire web again and again and store what it finds, for ever. The Internet Archive doesn’t have an explicit way to remove sites once they’re in its index – which is absolutely huge. It does take a case-by-case approach to requests for removal.

9) Be aware too that even if you remove explicit mentions of your name, a determined searcher may be able to dig up your past through leftover postings and hints of whatever sort. Mentions by other people, photos where even though you’re not tagged, you’re mentioned in related information.

In this, we’ve not taken the more extensive move of deleting your Google web search history – though if you don’t want to be (silently) tracked by Google, then stop using Google’s search (there are plenty of other search engines that won’t track you, such as DuckDuckGo.com or Blekko.com. DuckDuckGo is improving all the time, and saw a big jump in traffic with the change in Google’s privacy policies last year.

Vanishing yourself from the internet is very, very hard. As far as is known, nobody’s succeeded – though of course if they had, how would we know?

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