From social networks to professional portfolios to shopping accounts, society is firmly entrapped in a web — literally. The internet is an inescapable part of our lives, and every day we leave traces of ourselves that can linger endlessly. Can we remove ourselves from the web completely? Can we do it for free?
The answer, as you may have guessed, is not so simple. As the saying goes, the internet is forever, and smart, dedicated stalkers will always be able to track you down. But if you're committed — and patient — you can come awfully close to removing your digital footprint. Here's how to do it.
Step 1: Delete your social, shopping and entertainment accounts
Social media is the first and most obvious place for internet sleuths to look. Not only can these sites reveal personal information (such as where you live), but they can provide insight into your interests, peer groups and scheduled events — all useful clues for tracking you down.
Deleting accounts like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is a no-brainer. Don't forget about Google+ and LinkedIn, too. Each platform has an option within account settings to delete the service. Facebook is a little trickier, though. The company will allow you to "deactivate" your account on a temporary basis, but will continue to store your information on its server in case you want to come back. To ensure your Facebook account is permanently deleted with no option for recovery, you'll need to fill out a form and explain why exactly you're leaving the service.
It doesn't stop at social media. Where else do you have a membership? Netflix? Reddit? Amazon? Go through all of these services and delete each account, whether it's for shopping, entertainment or anything else. Even if you rarely use these services, the slightest bit of information can provide a connection to your whereabouts.
If for whatever reason you can't delete an account, falsify it with fake information. Change your name, residence, email address and whatever else could be used to reveal your identity.
Step 2: Search for yourself and cut any remaining ties
By now you've removed the obvious accounts you frequent, but what about your MySpace from 2008 or that old cooking blog? To catch anything that's slipped between the cracks, do a search on your name and see what comes up. Just like the previous step, carefully go through and delete each and every account that still remains.
Even after this is done, you might notice some of your information is still visible — maybe a photo of you from graduation on your college's website, or a little blurb about your comedy background on an old improv troupe's page. You won't have direct access to delete these items yourself, so you'll need to reach out to the site's operator or webmaster to do it for you.
Be patient when you ask. Politely explain why you want the information removed and hope the webmaster complies with your request. If not, you'll have to resort to legal measures — but don't worry, you don't necessarily have to hire a lawyer.
You can send Google a legal request to remove any content from the search engine. The process will probably take some time and there are no guarantees Google will agree, but it's your best shot if sensitive information remains online.
Step 3: Remove outdated search results
So you deleted your accounts and successfully removed any remaining content, but a search for your name still brings up results — even though your name isn't actually found on the page. Huh? This is because the search engine cached the old version of a website.
Both Google and Bing have tools to remove cached content. Simply submit the URL in question and hope for the best, because there's no guarantee they will honor your request for a variety of reasons. That being said, Google offers solutions to denied requests and you can address those to ensure no links are still identifying your name. Like we said, this process requires patience.
Step 4: Clear your information from data collection sites
Hopefully by this point searches for your name are striking out. Even though your identity may not appear in a typical Google search, a number of companies are still collecting your information.
Data brokers such as Intelius, Spokeo and PeopleFinders track online behavior and sell that data to interested clients. Typically it's advertisers looking to sell you products, but you never know. It's best not to leave that door open, so you'll need to clear your name from these sites.
You could do this personally by searching for yourself on these sites and going through each individual service to get your name removed. But it would take a while and require a lot of phone calls, physical paperwork and a fax machine (you're trying to remove yourself from the internet, right?).
You're probably better off using a paid service like DeleteMe to achieve these results. For a one-year membership for $129, DeleteMe will remove your public profile from all the leading data collection sites, as well as your contact, personal, and social information and photos of you, your family, and your home. Then every three months, the company will send you a privacy report to ensure you're aware of the progress.
Step 5: Contact your phone company, unsubscribe from mailing lists and delete your email accounts
This is it, the home stretch. You've painstakingly gone through all the steps to erase your online identity. Now you just need to do three minor things.
First, reach out to your phone provider and make sure your information is not listed online. If so, have them remove your name and any other relevant information.
Now go through junk/spam/promotion folders and unsubscribe from any mailing lists you're registered to. You don't want any evidence of an email address remaining.
To cement this point, delete each and every one of your email accounts. You've kept them up to this point in case you needed to receive any information about password or username changes, but now that's no longer necessary. Remember: Deactivating is not enough; they need to be permanently deleted.
Congratulations, you no longer exist online. Right?
Well, actually ... you probably still do. It's incredibly hard to fully delete your presence on the internet, but by following these steps, you've come as close as you possibly can. Somewhere, somehow, there may be a little clue remaining — a cached website, forgotten blog or unlisted YouTube video — but the process of tracking you down has become significantly harder. Now, it'll take the very best of web detectives to hunt you down. Good luck.