How to delete yourself from the internet

March 11 11:13 2020 Print This Article

What is the point of getting rid of social media if all of your data is left online after you’ve gone? Samuel Fishwick has taken up the harder-than-you-might-think challenge of wiping himself off the face of the net

‘Trying to delete yourself from the internet is like trying to take piss out of a swimming pool,’ says Troy Hunt, one of the most highly regarded cyber-security staffers at Microsoft (where they know a thing or two about the internet) and regional director of the firm’s division in Australia (where they know a thing or two about owning and maintaining a swimming pool).

I learnt about him on the internet. It looks like my quest to erase my clumsy digital footprint is going to be quite the task.

Nevertheless, I’m serving myself notice to take the ‘I’ out of the internet, deleting every trace of my presence from website after website like the Marie Kondo of URLs. My Twitter profile, @Fish_o_wick, does not spark joy. Delete.

Why go to the effort? Partly out of concern about data privacy, partly as self-care (more on both later). And partly to see if I can. I’ve been online since 1999, the approximate era of my (now extinct) GeoCities site once stacked with flashy text art and pixelated pictures of Chelsea footballers, so this is a tall order. Yet in under an hour I have deactivated my Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn profiles. My DMs are not open. No one can @ me. Silence falls. Facebook and LinkedIn are more tenacious. LinkedIn informs me another person’s profile I’m connected with will be ‘sad to see me go’, a curious tug on the heartstrings from a piece of software (I’ve absolutely never exchanged a word with this human IRL or online). Facebook’s process is less well signposted, perhaps in the hope that I’ll get lost looking for the exit and give up. That said, I spend 20 minutes using its helpful, in-built function to download over a decade’s worth of photos, friends and wall comments, squirreling them away on my desktop. I have now self-cancelled.

At least, that’s the plan. It turns out, breaking up with your digital self is more complex than just telling your various social media sites ‘it’s over’. Each platform gave me at least a 30-day ‘cooling off’ period to ‘think’ (Twitter says I have until 19 Feb 2021). It’s been 24 hours and I’m itching to load my now defunct Instagram page and check my notifications (there are none, I don’t exist). Are these the digi-shakes? Scrubbing my presence from the world’s wider web is also proving all-consuming. A Google search throws up more than 10 pages of ‘Samuel Fishwick’ results. A WordPress blog I’d forgotten about. A website that styles itself as a ‘dirty Tinder’ and appears to have my email address. A Mediawatch blog reminds me I once called Jamie Vardy ‘loveable’; an article I wrote about Daniel Craig has been quoted, apropos of nothing, on the website blog of a chartered financial planner.

Next, I begin what’s informally known as a ‘GDPR smackdown’; emailing sites to tell them, under Article 17 of the General Data Protection Regulation 2016 /679, I request that they delete all the information that they have on me. ‘You have 48 hours before I instruct my lawyers to contact the European Court of Human Rights,’ I warn them, casting myself as Adult Male, ft lawyers. Many oblige. Most ignore. My own employer refuses to take down my online articles. I begin an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of my requests. ‘I got bored of trying to follow up on them all,’ says Safa Ghnaim, project lead of the Data Detox Kit at Tactical Tech, a Berlin-based organisation that specialises in helping scrub a web presence clean and that has advised me on how to proceed. Google, whose Chrome browser holds reams of data, asked Ghnaim to provide her passport to prove she was, indeed, Safa Ghnaim. ‘In itself a request for data,’ she points out.

It suddenly occurs to me that I have no idea how much of my own data is actually out here. Data (such as the email address you might have to type in for permission to see memes on a cat lolz forum) is often left unprotected, hacked and traded by brokers. It is invaluable to companies — or those looking to commit a phishing scam. Hunt, my cyber-privacy guru, has a side hobby checking for these data caches and allowing anyone to see if their details have been leaked. He started the website Have I Been Pwned to assist people trying to wipe themselves from the internet (‘I didn’t think it would become so popular when I chose the name,’ he moans) after a data breach on software company Adobe leaked the email addresses of customers — without many of them knowing.

‘Very often we see data breaches that don’t just expose email, but a password — quite frequently there’s also your actual name, maybe your physical address, sometimes it’s biometric data.’ In the case of the adultery website Ashley Madison (slogan: ‘Life is short. Have an affair’), which had its entire subscriber base hacked and released in 2015, Hunt says: ‘Maybe it’s your sexuality, maybe it’s your deepest personal desires.’ I check the security of my own email on his site. I’ve been Pwned three times.

What a tangled web. In a year, according to the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), the average person creates a digital trail that exceeds 50GB (the size of a Blu-Ray disc): there’s an echo of your online activity frozen somewhere every time you stream a song, tap onto a bus journey, load your favourite sports website for the third time in a morning or upload a selfie at Thirsty Thursdays with ‘this one’. But the real scale is so vast it’s unplottable.

‘Your data shadow is blurry, but it’s a very wide shadow, and it involves things you may not even be able to imagine,’ says Bernie Hogan, senior research fellow at OII. ‘Walking past one of those new Ring smart doorbells, or into a house with a Nest sensor that adjusts the heating when someone’s home? That’s a camera and a sensor connected to the internet.’ Every time your phone connects to wi-fi or 3G, it notifies your network carrier (in exchange for free wi-fi, TfL monitors crowd congestion on the London Underground by tracking who is logging on and where). If you’ve ever checked in to the NHS you have a patient ID. EU citizens who have applied for settled status in the UK know that their ‘right to remain’ only exists in a digital form. ‘You can minimise your footprint, but the reality of it is that we can’t get by in modern life without some kind of internet presence,’ says Hunt.

Quite. ‘The internet has become hyper-personalised as I’ve grown up with it,’ says Hogan, who deleted his own Facebook page in 2016 when he realised how polarised online discourse was becoming, including his own. ‘It also flattens and simplifies the ways we present ourselves to online audiences, because we instinctively try to reach the greatest audience mass with the lowest common modes of expression.’ The personal has become the political.

Now the lens through which Hogan sees the web is less dominated by algorithms and the need for feedback. It’s the attention economy, stupid. He wasn’t imagining how his audience would react. He points to a peer-reviewed study on a US college class, half of whom were asked to give up Facebook and report on their mood. The detoxers moods increased. Mark Haddon, the author, wrote in the Financial Times of how he quit Twitter because it was detrimentally affecting the way he both looked at and thought about the world around him, even when he was away from a screen. ‘When reading a novel, watching a TV programme or visiting an exhibition, a part of my mind would be constantly alert for, and quietly fashioning, tweetable material.’

Which is all well, and very good. Personally, I feel paralysed. I can’t look anything up on Twitter. I’d rather open my phone up and pretend to be smart than close it and reveal I am dim. So while I’m towelling off, the water looks lovely. Maybe I am the piss in the pool.

Digital disappearing hacks

Determined to vanish from the web? Try these tips for starters

  1. Scour every personal email inbox you’ve ever used for breadcrumbs of services you’ve signed up to (hint: search for phrases such as ‘Sign up’ or ‘Welcome’). Unsubscribe from all of them.
  2. Pay for an information removal service such as DeleteMe (cheaper than a Netflix subscription) to erase any home address, phone numbers and other information that may have leaked out on to the internet. This takes care of everything bar your social media accounts.
  3. Remove yourself from the Google search engine by using Google Search Console and entering every URL that appears when you type your name in. Can’t find this? Google it.
  4. Virtually anonymise your internet connection by using a virtual private network, such as ExpressVPN. Pre-warn your partner about this furtive move to avoid awkward questions.
  5. Change your passwords. Delete all your emails. Set your privacy settings to ‘survivalist libertarian’.

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