There is plenty of information out there about how to physically move off the grid, but what about going off the grid in the digital world? For many off-gridders, a social media or digital presence is still necessary – to remain plugged into the world around us, at least socially. But as the ease with which the government – and landlords, potential employers, even strangers – can track our movements online increases, so too seems to be the interest in disappearing from the digital world and becoming truly invisible. But how do you vanish from the internet?
Bradley Shear, a lawyer who specialises in social media and privacy, warned that it wouldn’t be easy. He said if you really want to step away from the internet and leave no digital trace, it would mean giving up using all electronic devices.
“[To go the full off-grid route] it’s cash, barters,” Bradley said. “Do not use any electronic device that can lead back to your whereabouts.”
Social media backlog
Bradley suggests deleting your social media accounts, or at least cleaning them up. Social media accounts, more or less, ensure you actively participate in letting the internet learn more about you; Facebook, in particular, is very good at tracking what you do across the rest of the web – even when you aren’t actively using it. The site stores your search information to suggest particular webpages, news of interest and advertisements.
“You have to think about the digital accounts you currently have,” Bradley said. “You have a Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, old Myspace? Anything that has your name on it. You want to either delete content from them or delete the accounts altogether.”
Although when you delete your accounts many of the companies will still keep the data you previously gave them, at least it won’t be publicly shared.
Bradley pointed out that Gmail in particular has to go – and you can’t use Google or Yahoo, because these programs all track your access location.
“Every time you access [Gmail], they have your IP address,” he said.
If you want to make sure your activity isn’t tracked across the web, Bradley said to use a virtual private network, or VPN, every time you access the internet, unless you only login from public machines (such as those at a public library or internet café). To search, Bradley suggests using sites such as DuckDuckGo instead of the traditional engines that track you.
If all that sounds too painful to deal with, at the very least consider deleting unnecessary content from your social media accounts. Twitter and Facebook let you download an archive of your data on the platform, in case you’re worried about losing any of those utterly amazing early tweets. And beyond the in-account settings for each service, third-party tools such as TweetDelete allow you to erase years of content automatically. But even that, Bradley said, doesn’t provide perfect results – the government probably already has your tweets on file.
“Using a service that deletes old tweets is helpful,” he said. “However, the Library of Congress is cataloguing every single tweet ever.”
JustDelete.Me provides a good starting point for people who want straightforward links to the deletion pages of a ton of accounts, along with a bit of guidance on how easy or hard it is to delete each one.
For those who can’t stand to go completely off the grid – which is probably most of us – Bradley said one of the most valuable things to do is litter the internet with misinformation about yourself.
“Never have a real birthday,” he said. “Always use a throwaway birthday when signing up for social media accounts or pretty much any other service online. Use a throwaway email. If a site or an app is asking for a bunch of information that you think it doesn’t need from you to provide you with whatever service it is promising, don’t do it. If that personal information is required to use that service, then make up some stuff. You want to provide as many alternative facts as possible.”
Of course, most of us will have already provided a lot of the information to a bunch of sites – so try to change it. On many sites, you can change your birthday, your likes and dislikes, past employment experiences, place of residence and other personal details, although some have a limit on how many times you can alter information (like Facebook).
Bradley said he knows that he’s essentially advising people to ignore the terms of service for these sites, and he’s okay with that.
“Feel free to protect your privacy and violate their terms of service,” he said.
Anyone who’s ever self-Googled knows that there are a ton of “people search” sites out there that promise to host valuable information about individuals. Usually, this information – phone numbers, social media profiles, addresses, anything else available from public records or through data collection on the internet – is sold for a fee (but not always). These companies are known as data brokers, businesses that collect information to sell it to other businesses. Bradley warned that trying to fully disappear from their databases is like “whack-a-mole.”
“Look at the first five to 10 pages of your Google results and see who has your name,” Bradley said. Your information will probably be on sites such as Whitepages, Spokeo and Intelius, for example, and each of these sites should have a way to opt out – but Bradley warned that sometimes the opt-out process can be a scam. If the site requires users to verify their identity before opting out by giving more information or providing a government ID, get out of there.
The second part of keeping your information out of the hands of data brokers involves plugging any digital leaks. If you’ve ever signed up for an account by linking it to a Facebook, Google or Twitter account, you have a leak, and should undo it if possible.
The other thing to think about is your phone – and what permissions you have given your apps.
“Most apps ask for way too much information,” Bradley said. “If you want to keep your phone, go ahead and delete every single app you don’t actually need.”
Of course, even doing all of these things won’t completely disappear most of us from the internet – particularly those who are older or have been using it for all our lives so have an extensive digital trail. So, the question becomes: Can you really disappear from the internet?
Bradley said it doesn’t matter if it’s futile or not – it’s important to try as much as you can, and do it properly, as if it’s going to work.
“You might not get perfect results, but it’s always worth the effort to try.”