Who we are online is a lasting first impression of who we may be in person. In the digital age, everything from our name and address to the school we attended and our banking information exists on the internet.
Prospective employers or clients can usually find anything they want to know about you online. Worse, hackers and other ill-intentioned individuals have endless means to take your information and use it against you. Many choose to set strict privacy restrictions to avoid these invasions. Some want to take more drastic measures.
If your online presence has become a problem, or if you just want to live a little more off the grid, there are ways to fix the amount of information out there. It all depends on how deep you would like to go. You can work through encrypted servers and set everything to private, or you can effectively delete yourself from Google and the internet.
How Much Content Do You Need to be Removed?
There is a spectrum of what you can have exposed to online. Before you decide to start deleting, you need to ask yourself what your ultimate goal is. If you would like to come up “clean” when clients or employers look for you, you may simply need to adjust your privacy settings.
If you want no trace of your existence left, you can get close but not quite completely gone because of digitized public records. State and federal records have been available online for several decades, and there is no way to opt out of their availability. Aside from those things beyond individual reach, however, there is a lot that can be done to minimize your available information online.
Most people who are looking to delete themselves from Google and the internet are really only looking to delete themselves from the eye of the general public. Who you are on your locked down social media may not be the version of yourself you present in a professional environment. For those seeking a clean slate, more work is involved than adjusting the settings.
Where Do I Start?
First, start by searching for yourself on Google and see what you find. This will give you an idea of your biggest issues. Many people looking to go “off the grid,” so to speak, are already fairly private, so there may not be any major red flags. A thorough Google search will let you know if there are any surprises you need to handle first.
If you do find objectionable images or information on yourself and you do not control it (i.e., on a website you do not own), your first step will be to contact the owner and ask that it be taken down. You may have to do some research to find the contact information for the site, particularly if it is an older page.
If you contact the owner and they refuse to remove the issue or if you cannot find their information to ask that it be removed, Google may be able to help. There is a contact section specifically for this situation.
Some things Google may remove at your request are:
- Involuntary (real or fabricated) explicit images
- Certain financial or medical information
- The information posted with the intent of blackmailing you into taking it down
Essentially, start with the worst of the worst. If there is something really bad out there, get rid of it first. Search for your name, any other names you have used in the past, and search those names with towns in which you have lived. Be creative in your combinations for searching and leave no stone unturned. To get rid of the big things, you need to start with essentially investigating yourself.
There are other materials that Google will voluntarily remove as well, but these are for legal reasons. Illicit, illegal content involving abuse, particularly of children, will be removed as soon as it is identified. Materials subject to legal restrictions or classified information will be quickly removed as well. You may need to seek legal advice depending on the situation.
The People You Let Have Your Information
Most of the information online was put there bit by bit, by none other than yourself. After you have the major issues under control, you can change your focus to the more minor things. The seemingly innocuous use of everyday social media can be the biggest minefield of personal information.
Consistent use of social media releases details of our everyday lives, so to eliminate yourself from the internet, this is a good place to start. In the settings of Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets, you can go under your account settings and delete your account. Be sure to back up all of your information before you do so, as you never know when you may need it again. Once it is gone, it is gone for good. Some platforms have tools for retrieval, but most do not.
Facebook does have the option to go inactive if you are not ready to commit to deleting the account but needless no information out there. This keeps your account intact but takes it offline for everyone but yourself.
Once you have taken care of social media, the bigger task begins. You will need to identify every account you have made online and search for their platform for the protocol on account deletion.
One by one, every account you have ever made will need to be not only closed but fully deleted. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Banking Apps, Fitbit, YouTube—these are just a few that will need to be taken care of to be considered offline truly. There are websites dedicated to reducing the digital footprint that can provide you with a list of popular sites and applications and give you instructions on deleting your accounts.
These pages are helpful in consolidating the information as well as reminding you about which accounts you may have forgotten. This will take time, but it can significantly reduce your exposure.
The Other Places that Have Your Information
One of the most disconcerting internet facts is that anyone can go to a “people search” website such as Intelius and buy your most private information—phone numbers, addresses, family members, etc.. These websites poach public records and put all your information in one convenient place for a nominal fee. Some of these sites compile information from your social media as well, making them doubly invasive.
If you do not want any random person to be able to track you down for ten dollars, you can opt out of “people search” websites.
They do not all make it easy. Some require a snail mail letter or fax to remove your information. However, this is a price you may want to pay for your privacy.
If You Are Serious About Being “Off the Grid”
If you have taken care of the big stuff, gotten off of all the websites, wiped your name off the “people search” databases, and you are ready to truly pull the plug on your existence online, you only have two things left—Email and Google.
Email is a big deal. It is a major form of basic communication. It is the gateway to all other internet life. If you want to be offline, you need to back up all of your sent mail, all of your inbox, and all other saved information, go to your account settings and delete your email. Gmail has a small recovery window where your content can be retrieved, but it is best not to risk it. Once your email is gone, you can work on eliminating yourself from google.
Google holds a history of all of your activity beyond just your browser history. Google uses your information for ads and other marketing. In order to stop google from tracking what you do you need to disable the marketing activity by taking the following steps
- Click “Manage my Google Account”
- Click “Manage your data & personalization”
- Click “Manage your activity controls”
- Click “Pause” on all of the add tracking columns
You need to delete your entire activity history quite frequently as well in order to reduce your digital footprint. Using Chrome, you need to do the following steps after each use:
- Click “Manage my Google Account”
- Click “Manage your data & personalization”
- Click “My activity”
- Click “Delete by”
- Select your range and delete
These steps delete everything you have read, searched, watched, or done at all in the realm of Google.
The Bottom Line
You cannot truly and completely delete yourself from the internet, but you can dramatically reduce your online presence. Google allows for a great deal of autonomy though it takes a bit of leg work and knows how to effectively restrict its marketing and activity tracking. If you are dedicated to being off the grid, you will be looking at a lot of effort over a period of time, but you can come very close to deleting yourself from Google and the internet.