Every man’s last words? “Delete my browser history.” Which never fails to make us feel a little more dignified after and is very easy to do. But if for whatever reason you want to completely delete yourself from the internet, a quick Google search will tell you as much: virtually impossible.
While you can delete that which holds the bulk of information about you online, specifically your social media accounts, there is a lot more to your digital footprint than you might know. And those remnants are usually the toughest to scrub.
“It is almost impossible to completely delete yourself from the Internet. On a surface level, you have to delete your accounts on every website or app you have ever logged into, and ask each and every company to delete any stored data they have of you,” says Luis Corrons, Security Evangelist at Prague-based cybersecurity software company Avast.
“Then there’s the data on your smartphone and what you do online, which is accessible to your internet service provider. A growing number of governments are making use of that data, so we are forced to be online even if we do not want to.”
His sentiments are echoed by Rob Shavell, CEO and Co-founder of DeleteMe, a service that helps people remove their personal information from data broker sites: “The various trails of data we leave behind can’t ever be completely erased, whether by individuals or third parties. As it is, there are public records sources that can be used to find out the basic personal identifiable information of most adults.”
In Shavell’s opinion, there is no perfect, hermetic concept of deletion; and protecting your personal information from abuse isn’t a matter of removing every single mention of your existence from the public sphere, but limiting the consolidation of sensitive personal details like your address, phone number, email addresses and usernames.
In short, in living in this era, the end goal should not be total erasure from public presence but making yourself less exploitable.
You can limit access to your personal information
Whether you simply want to clean up your online image, have regrettably become a victim of harassment or identity theft, or really are just up to something nefarious, if you find yourself looking to delete yourself from the Internet, you’re motivated to protect your general privacy.
In most cases, the deletion of your social media accounts removes every comment, photo and video you’ve ever put up, but good luck with that if someone has downloaded or taken a screenshot of anything.
“There are services like the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, which allows anyone to browse archived versions of websites. This is why we should think before posting anything on the Internet and keep in mind that anything published will possibly be memorised by the online world forever,” Corrons warns. As of June 2022, the digital archive has saved more than 698 billion web pages since its public launch in 2001.
But on the bright side, not only would deleting your accounts remove a lot about you online, you can further limit access to your personal information by having them removed from data broker sites. Shavell says that this can be carried out by contacting the sites yourself, which can be a laborious process, or engaging a service.
“Removing yourself from these ‘one-stop shop’ providers makes it far more difficult for your information to be accessed on demand by vast arrays of direct marketers, which in turn makes your information less likely to be shared, lost in breaches and used in any malicious targeting by scammers or identity thieves.”
He adds that making information harder to consolidate creates “just enough labour intensity” to serve as a barrier against mass abuse. However, these removals aren’t necessarily permanent because data is constantly being scraped, consolidated and reshared, so it might not be long for your information to be leaked for commercial trade again.
“Often, information will reappear on data broker sites within roughly nine months of an opt-out request as they rebuild profiles from public and commercial transaction sources. We are pushing strongly for laws that will improve the status quo and make consumer opt-out rights more permanent. But compliance with existing laws is already spotty, so without enforcement action, better laws won’t be a perfect solution either.”
If it is web pages with mentions of you that you want taken down, you can make a request with the company running the website. If they accede, but the page still appears in search results even though the link is now dead, it means that the previous version of the page is still cached on the servers of the search engines. In this instance, you’ll need to submit a request that they update their servers.
“Requesting link removals from Google is fairly straightforward, particularly if you’re a business client. However, you need to remember that it’s pointless to do so unless the underlying information is also being scrubbed or it will simply be cached again in the future. DeleteMe helps people do both,” Shavell says.
He points out that Google also recently added a new capability that allows individual consumers to request the removal of links exposing personally identifiable information.
“At the moment, the interface and process for doing so aren’t ideal for people who want to completely clean up their online profile as each instance requires a separate request. That said, we support their initiative and think it’s a huge step in the right direction. We hope that they will help improve on this capability, which will allow recognised third- party services like ourselves to help with the processing of these kinds of requests for consumers in bulk, saving both themselves and their users’ enormous amounts of time and effort.”
The consequences of male behaviour online
If we’re honest, no matter how many throwaway accounts we create or VPN subscriptions we rotate among, knowing that we can’t completely delete ourselves from the Internet will change how we behave on it, particularly if we’re prone to risky behaviours.
“Studies have shown that, in some cases, men are prone to risky behaviours online and generally tend to be heavy internet-users. This ranges from being reckless with safety to perusing content relating to vice,” says Dr Omer Ali Saifudeen, Senior Lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.
He however cautions against gender-stereotyping online behaviours.
“We need to keep in mind that the online realm offers opportunities for just about any profile to engage in behaviours they like. And it’s not just about gender-specific online behaviours but what people are like offline, and we need to keep in mind the methodological limitations of studies that might not be representative of all men.”
He adds that while studies have shown online trolls are usually men, it is important that we recognise these online trolls as the Internet and social media are “just tools that facilitate a particular cross-section of men, and sometimes women, who become online trolls”.
In a nutshell, it’s not about what trolling says about male behaviour, but the kind of men the online realm attracts when it comes to engaging in unsavoury behaviours like misogyny. The good news is, men have been observed to be moving away from the attitudes and behaviours that encourage such conduct.
“At one point in time, men took on the role of the hunter, which meant that they had to incorporate aggression and risk assessment. Today, a lot of this has to do with how we are socialised, such as through the education system and our culture. For example, gender norms that promote the idea of men as rational and not emotional, and in turn virtuous because of their ‘strength’, have a lot to do with how we are socialised,” the academic shares.
“But we are increasingly seeing a push for a more balanced attitude that encourages men to be more in touch with their emotions, express their feelings and practise empathy.”
It's OK to fake it online
Want to re-establish your presence on the Internet after some rounds of deletion? To remain as unexploitable as possible, you’ve just got to carefully curate what you put out there.
“The best piece of advice is for minimising data collection by avoiding the public sharing of personal data in the first place. If you want to have say, LinkedIn or Facebook accounts, set them to private so only your contacts can see your information. Use pseudonyms when signing up for forums and, of course, be aware of the potential consequences of the comments you make to people you engage with,” Corrons says.
In addition, Shavell recommends cleaning out your inboxes, using burner and/or private email addresses whenever suitable, and not filling out online forms for everyone who asks.
“Your backlog of cloud-hosted email is effectively public information to your internet service provider as well as the government, and it’s frequently mined for information that they can sell to marketers to better target you with ads. So, whenever necessary, use email services like Protonmail as they help you avoid sharing personal information with businesses or sources you don’t fully want to expose yourself to,” he asserts.
“Those online personality quizzes people love to take? They’re market research flytraps. If you need to read a research report which requires you to fill out personal information, use a fake job title and phone number.”
It will also help if you use a password manager.
“Simply having a strong, unique password for every account you use can do a lot to improve your broader security. That can be incredibly difficult to do without a good password manager, so get one and learn to use it. In the inevitable event someone you do business with suffers a breach, your information won’t lead to exploitation elsewhere, ” Shavell says.
He adds that while the level of concern people have for online privacy and business information-sharing has been high for at least the last five years, some research has shown that it historically translates into relatively little action taken to improve privacy. So while 80 percent may express concern, only about 20 percent of them will take the time to learn about the privacy settings of their primary accounts or devices they use because “few people will do anything until they or someone they know experiences some adverse event, like doxxing, harassment, identity theft or some sort of professional embarrassment”.
The good news is, the small percentage of people who choose to take action is growing rapidly. As is awareness from employers about protecting their employees’ personal information, so there may be hope for protecting your internet presence yet.
“It’s in their self-interests, both as protection from potential social-engineering exploits and as something that improves remote workforce security and productivity. This can be observed from the way Google and Apple are putting new emphasis on their privacy bona-fides and how business services moving towards passwordless systems—they recognise that users want to see big tech companies being a part of the solution instead of the source of the problem.”
This story first appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Esquire Singapore