Leaving the Web behind might just be the key to your privacy (and sanity). By John Herrman
If you’ve ever used the Internet, you have an online identity. Maybe it’s slight: a Hotmail account here, a comment on a news story there. Or maybe you’ve been more prolific, leaving a trail of usernames, accounts, messages and profiles across the digital landscape. In any case, an active Internet user owes it to himself to do a bit of self-Googling. What you’ll find will be both enlightening and humbling ““ even worrying. Unease about your online identity shouldn’t be limited to how much information is publicly available. Online advertising is the engine that drives the Internet’s largest sites, including Google and Facebook, and it depends on your personal ““ and allegedly private ““ data for fuel. “The government, companies and marketers all want us to share as much information as possible because that’s what’s good for them,” says Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “and it’s time to think of what’s good for us.”
While most Internet users seem fine with privacy trade-offs, the lack of control will lead some to consider the nuclear option: total Internet evacuation. But taking yourself offline isn’t as simple as logging out ““ it requires a little bit of work. Here’s how.
When a Web site is new, the last thing its creators are thinking about is how to help users leave. Thankfully, many of the Internet’s largest identity properties ““ Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft ““ are fairly mature and have evolved enough to offer well-defined ““ if well-hidden ““ escape plans.
If you’ve ever used Gmail, Google Docs, Google+ or Picasa, to name a few, then you have a Google account. Google accounts can contain an astounding amount of personal data ““ check google.com/dashboard to see exactly how much ““ but removing it is a straightforward process. Before you hit the switch, be sure to back up any information you want to keep ““ a Google account can be recovered for only a few months after its deletion.
Google doesn’t have a software tool for exporting data from its services, but most services have their own, typically found under the Settings menu on the upper-right-hand side of the screen. As with other webmail services, the easiest way to back up your Live or Hotmail messages is to add your account to a mail app such as Outlook or Apple’s Mail before deletion; this will have the added benefit of backing up your contacts.
Once you’ve copied your important data offline, navigate to your Google account dashboard (google.com/accounts). Next to My Products, click Edit. Then select Close Account and Delete All Services and Info Associated With It. You’ll be presented with a list of Google services that you’ve used in the past. (In my case, this included three that I didn’t remember signing up for.) Check the box next to each, along with the two are-you-really-sure boxes at the bottom, and select Delete Google Account. The account will be instantly wiped from the public Internet, but the company warns on its Web site that “residual”¦ accounts may take up to 60 days to be deleted from our active servers and may remain in our backup systems”, but not be accessible in any way, “for an additional period of time”.
Until 2008, there was no obvious way to permanently delete your information from Facebook. Instead, there was a Deactivate option only, which removed your profile from public view but left it on Facebook’s servers indefinitely. Thousands complained, so Facebook built a tool for permanently and instantly deleting user data ““ then promptly hid it away in the site’s Help section.
To access it, log in to Facebook, navigate to facebook.com/help, and type “delete my account” in the search box. The top result will link you to the deletion page. Click Submit and confirm your choice, and you’re done. While Facebook doesn’t offer much help for backing up your data ““ a particular concern if you use Facebook to hold your photo collection ““ there are a number of free Facebook apps designed to archive your albums, such as Facebook Exporter for iPhoto and FBPhotoExport.
To pull yourself free from Microsoft’s services, go to account.live.com and scroll to the bottom of the page. Under the Other Options header, click Close Account. On the following page, re-enter your account password and press Yes. Unfortunately, there is no account-wide export option.
Closing an Amazon account is a more roundabout process. Click Help in the upper-right-hand corner of any page on amazon.com and search “closing your account”. On the resulting page, pick Contact Us, then click on Something Else. Below that, select Account Settings from the menu, then Close My Account. At the bottom of the page, click Send Us an Email, fill out the form, and send.
Most reputable Web sites will offer some sort of account deletion option. Smaller sites that have posted (or more likely, re-posted) your data without your permission can prove more difficult; after all, the owners never had your permission to re-publish your blog posts, photos or videos in the first place. Finding this type of information ““ or derogatory and misrepresentative comments about you ““ is no more difficult than doing a search on Google or Bing. (Be sure to place quotation marks around your name.)
Searching for yourself isn’t about narcissism; it’s not unusual for job recruiters, current employers or even potential dates to vet new acquaintances on search engines. A misleading search result or libellous information could cause serious distress and do damage to your reputation.
On a smaller site, sending a direct request to a webmaster to pull infringing or upsetting material is your best course of action. If there is no prominently listed contact information for the site’s operator, or if you aren’t able to get a response from the listed address or phone number, you can find direct contact information for the site’s administrator by conducting a search on whois.net.
Domain owners are required by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to supply contact information for Whois searches, including a phone number. This may at least get you on the phone with someone or give you a working e-mail address. Whether that will be of any help is a different story. If a site refuses to take down content that belongs to you, you can try sending a takedown notice. The USA’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) entitles users to have infringing content ““ images, text or video that they own, specifically ““ taken down. There are a number of forms available online for submitting DMCA notices to Internet hosting companies; there are even forms for asking Google, Yahoo and Bing to remove content from their search results. While these forms don’t guarantee co-operation, the mere threat of legal action will at least be enough to get a site owner’s attention. If a DMCA notice doesn’t get a response, it might be time to talk to a lawyer.
The data that won’t die
It’s easy to tell when your data has been removed from public display; if you can’t find it any more, then it’s effectively gone. Finding out whether or not a company is still holding your data privately ““ or selling it to third parties ““ may be impossible. “There’s no way to verify that your information has been deleted,” Jeschke says, nor is there an overarching law or regulation governing data retention. Some data simply can’t be reclaimed; you relinquished control the moment you hit Submit, after you clicked past that 50-page licence agreement.
This is a valuable lesson, and while it might not help you seize full control of your online identity, it’s instructive. When you sign up with a service, make sure you trust its parent company and understand what data you’re giving up. To sign up with Google or Facebook is to sell yourself in a literal way. As an astute (and anonymous) poster on the news site MetaFilter wrote: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”
A Web app to end all Web apps
Signing up for social media sites is, by design, almost entirely frictionless. Three or four clicks will get you in the door, but finding your way out takes significantly more time and effort. The Web 2.0 Suicide Machine (tagline: Meet Your Real Neighbours Again) is a one-shot tool for deleting your profiles from some of the largest social sites on the Web, including Twitter, Myspace, LinkedIn and Facebook.
The tool was released last year by the New Media Lab in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and still lives up to its name ““ with one exception. Facebook has taken action to disable the site’s “suicide” script, and even sent the creators a stern cease-and-desist letter, demanding that Facebook be exempted from its deletion tools.
Among the concerns included in Facebook’s legal letter: “The protection of users’ privacy.”
Choosing an online privacy tool
Leaving the Internet isn’t for everyone, but staying doesn’t have to mean giving up on privacy and data security. Here are three tools to give you online peace of mind, from the somewhat discreet to the ultra-secure.
- Privacy tool: Private browsing
This feature is included in most new Internet browsers and goes by a few different titles: Private mode, Incognito mode, and InPrivate. All these names are a bit of an overreach: this mode only prevents Web browsers from collecting history and cookies. It keeps other users of your computer from seeing what you’ve been doing (buying gifts being the most palatable example); it won’t shield your IP address or existing cookies from external sites.
Security evaluation: Minimal
- Privacy tool: Virtual private networks
Paid virtual private network (VPN) services route your Internet traffic through an intermediary, masking your computer’s address from the sites you visit. Sites will, however, still be able to deposit tracking cookies on your computer, and your browser will still be prone to exploits and viruses. VPNs reroute all Internet traffic on your computer, not just from Web browsers, which makes them popular with file sharers. Reputable services include WiTopia and Blacklogic.
Security evaluation: Moderate
Privacy tool: Cocoon (getcocoon.com)
This service is a plug-in for the free Firefox browser that combines the advantages of private browsing and a VPN with extra security features. Traffic is routed through remote servers and made anonymous, and all incoming files ““ downloads or Web sites ““ are scanned for viruses and malware. Other features include throwaway e-mail addresses for spam prevention, and full portability, so you can access your Cocoon account from other computers.
Security evaluation: Paranoid