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Privacy The Internet Your Rights Online

Is It Possible To Erase Yourself From the Internet? 295

Posted by samzenpus
from the back-in-the-shadows dept.
Barence writes "Do you remember what you posted on that music forum in 2004? Or which services you tried for webmail before Gmail? We often forget online services, but they don't forget us. PC Pro has investigated whether it's possible to retrospectively wipe yourself from the internet. It discusses how difficult it is to get your data removed from Facebook, Google and other popular web services, as well as reputation management services that promise to bury unwanted internet content on your behalf."
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Is It Possible To Erase Yourself From the Internet?

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  • by dnahelicase (1594971) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:33PM (#42865163)
    How do I get rid of all those incriminating posts from all that time I wasted on /. while I was at work?
    • How do I get rid of all those incriminating posts from all that time I wasted on /. while I was at work?

      Log out and sign up with a different nick.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Get back to work Chris, I know it's you.

      • by Seumas (6865) on Monday February 11, 2013 @06:01PM (#42866361)

        Yeah, I don't get it. Whenever I hear shit like this, I think "wait, why is this a problem?! Why are you using your REAL IDENTITY everywhere?!".

        I mean, granted, I use my real first name -- but everyone knows I'm a fucktard within like two minutes of meeting me, so hiding my stupidity is sort of a lost cause.

        • Re:It's the New You (Score:4, Interesting)

          by cusco (717999) <brian...bixby@@@gmail...com> on Monday February 11, 2013 @07:03PM (#42866867)
          Always figured if someone was actually interested enough in me to do a search they may as well find something of interest. I'm not ashamed of my opinions, including those that I've changed over the years, and I've tossed a couple of stories out there as well. I've never worried about prospective employers searching my online history either, since if they're the type who would find my opinions troubling then I probably wouldn't want to work for them anyway.
    • su -c "rpm -e myself"
      su -c "yum remove myself"
      sudo apt-get purge myself
      sudo apt-get remove myself
      sudo find / -iname "*myself*" -exec rm -rf {} \;
      '; delete from users where id='myself'; delete from posts where user_id='myself'; --
  • No. (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:34PM (#42865185)

    No.

  • by using a handle (pseudonym) and never your real name.

    Take that, Zuckerberg and Schmidt

    • by sinij (911942) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:42PM (#42865279) Journal
      It takes more than that. You also have to compartmentalize your real and assumed identities so your friends and acquaintances who do not value your privacy do not link them for you.

      I find facebook's "is this really X's real name" queries to your social contacts especially dangerous.
      • by mrbluze (1034940)

        It takes more than that. You also have to compartmentalize your real and assumed identities so your friends and acquaintances who do not value your privacy do not link them for you. I find facebook's "is this really X's real name" queries to your social contacts especially dangerous.

        Facebook is an intel organization's dream.

        • FTFY (Score:5, Insightful)

          by tacokill (531275) on Monday February 11, 2013 @05:00PM (#42865579)
          Facebook is an intel organization
          • by Kaenneth (82978)

            ... for our corporate overlords, and may also be useful to the elected government, as they serve those overlords.

    • by Kenja (541830) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:49PM (#42865389)
      And never buy a house or sign up for anything offline or do anything that ever goes into any form of public record. Basically, you need to go live in a cabin in the woods.
      • by MouseR (3264)

        Where your life will be filmed by the myriad of critter cams out there.

      • by DogDude (805747)
        Not true. The only contact I have with The Database is the house that I own, and it really doesn't do too much. Very occasionally, I'll get a piece of snail mail because of my house ownership, but that's really it. If you do no credit cards, no banks (credit unions), no online services, etc. then just owning a house doesn't really put you in The Database as much as one would think, considering it's public record.
      • by WinstonWolfIT (1550079) on Monday February 11, 2013 @06:03PM (#42866375)

        Thoreau and Kaczynski tried it, but then they couldn't resist writing a manifesto.

    • by XxtraLarGe (551297) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:53PM (#42865441) Journal

      by using a handle (pseudonym) and never your real name.

      It's a lot easier to connect the dots than you might think...

      • by BitterOak (537666) on Monday February 11, 2013 @05:12PM (#42865751)

        by using a handle (pseudonym) and never your real name.

        It's a lot easier to connect the dots than you might think...

        Yep. Sometimes it's something as simple as an IP address, cookie, or Flash cookie that will do it. Or something more subtle, like unique web browser signatures (eg. the collection of fonts installed on your system is reported by some browsers and and can serve as a unique fingerprint.). And keep in mind, as far as I know there are no privacy laws that prevent an ISP from reporting the real name of a subscriber given their IP address, and many give that information out to police without warrants.

    • by Githaron (2462596)
      TFS said retrospectively (while meaning retroactively).
    • I do that with a "blog/social media name" that I use. (My Slashdot account pre-dates this pseudonym.) The problem is that as I get in touch with more and more people online under my pseudonym (especially as I go to conferences and the like), more and more people know my real name. Which means that any one of them can reveal it online (whether out of malice or just not thinking). My pseudonym will be publicly linked with my real name someday. It's inevitable. My only home is to delay that for as long a

    • by Charliemopps (1157495) on Monday February 11, 2013 @05:53PM (#42866271)

      That doesn't work... at all... they don't care what your real name is. All they care about is being able to uniquely identify you, and target you with adds. Your full name is a horrible data point for that because there are probably dozens, if not thousands of other people with your same name. I have a rather unique name IRL and there are still at least 20 people I've found with the identical first and last.

      Instead they track you based on dozens of data points combined. Any of which can not match, but if they have enough data points they can still be sure it's you based on the rest of the data points that match.
      So lets say they have the following info on you:
      Email address
      IP address
      Operating system
      Browser
      Fonts installed
      Start page (where you launched their site from)

      This is a rather simple list. Most marketing software tracks much more than this.
      So they track when you login. In general, most of the above information is given over by default by your browser, besides the email address. The email address is the holy grail of data points because, even if you give them a bullshit email address (like you make up one on hotmail just for spam) you tend to use that same account on all sites. So every time you login they log all this data on you. Then their software collates all this data into: 100% of the time you logged in with all of the above data being the same with the exception of IP address. That seems to change between 2 IPs daily. Then, once a moth both those IPs change at random. A quick query shows that the first IP belongs to AT&T, and is clearly your home IP address. The second IP belongs to a company, and you access it between 8 and 3pm... so now they know where you work, and the hours you work.

      Generally they don't need all of this, as long as they have a verified email address. BUT... then you come to the point where you switch emails. Or you have multiple accounts to thwart your tracking efforts. BUT, they have all of these other data points. They can still confirm it's you to an error fact higher than the number of people in the united states. That's good enough for them, and they link the data between the 2 accounts and add your new email address to your list of email addresses in their database.

      But you say "AH WAIT! I didn't give my new email address to that site... I went over to this other one! They can't track me!" That's great, but it doesn't work. As things go now, the site you're at purchased a marketing package from a cloud service company. A company that tracks all of this data across thousands of sites. The marketing service likely even has peering agreements with other services.

      Long story short? No matter what you do... how you protect yourself... you can not evade this tracking. You could use TOR but that would just be another data point for them. The very fact that your IP changes every time you log in is identifying. You may think that none of this matters, they don't have any of your real life data. But the fact is, they don't care about that. They just want to sell you stuff... whomever you are. Oh, and by the way, the second you buy anything online, they have all that real life data in spades.

      • If you load up a virtual machine then there are no unique cookies, fonts, or anything on it uniquely you.

  • by gubon13 (2695335) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:36PM (#42865205)
    I can't speak to getting rid of specific old traces of yourself, but you're definitely SOOL if you close the email account on which old forum/website accounts were based. Even removing data from spokeo.com and similar sites is based on access to email addresses that, again, were associated with old accounts.
  • by Improv (2467) <pgunn@dachte.org> on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:38PM (#42865231) Homepage Journal

    I'm not happy when people dig into forums and start scrubbing bits out of them; it means that if I want to keep an accurate history of things I can look at, I need to save a copy, and if I'm having an internet argument with someone I need to stash a copy of everything they say on my website (or at least ready to go up there) to preserve coherency.

    For people who I think might try to disappear, or for people who frequently delete or censor their blogposts/discussion posts, I already do this, but it's a pain in the butt. I don't want it to be more common.

    It's healthier for society to accept that people change than to let everyone reenact 1984 every time they get nervous.

    • It's healthier for society to accept that people change than to let everyone reenact 1984 every time they get nervous.

      I take this statement to mean you've never actually read that particular tome.

      You should.

      • by Improv (2467)

        I have. Perhaps you're familiar with the editing of history that was a theme in the work?

        • Well, sure, by Big Brother, but not even Party members were allowed to alter their own history without express permission.

    • by vux984 (928602) on Monday February 11, 2013 @05:17PM (#42865831)

      It's healthier for society to accept that people change than to let everyone reenact 1984 every time they get nervous.

      I can control what I do. I can't control whether or not 'society will accept that I've changed'.

      As long as that remains true (and I don't see it changing anytime) only a fool will 'rely on society to accept...' anything, if they have any choice in the matter.

  • by vlm (69642) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:41PM (#42865269)

    Whats the internet? They just listed some specific services. I'm on usenet going back to 1989, I believe. Certainly 1991 at worst. Anyone younger than 35 or so pretty much just said "usenet? whats that?"

    Amusingly they didn't list what it takes to remove yourself from compuserve (I was on from 1981 till... donno) and prodigy and myspace and ...

    30 years from now you'll mention you were on linkedin and the 22 year old girls in HR who filter the resumes will say, "huh? Whats a linkedin?" Ditto facebook, G+, etc.

    • by Cassini2 (956052)

      Fortunately, the search engines appear to have forgotten about USENET. I'm in the same boat, and I used my real name too.

      My current strategy is to avoid saying anything on-line that could blow back to me, and I always use a pseudonym. However, with a vast history, I wonder how anonymous I really am.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Google Groups search finds any post on Usenet matching the search criteria. Note that flaming or embarrassing posts are generally at the top of the search results.

    • I too was on usenet & CIS in the mid 80's, yet I have neither a facebook nor a twitter account.

      30 years from now you'll mention

      I suspect 3 years is the more accurate prediction.....

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      Back then everything was done with pseudonyms so you can just switch to a new one and ditch your old identity any time you like. All you every posted was text or low res images. Nowadays every site wants your real name, and everyone uploads high quality photos with geotagging.

      PS. I'm 32 and have been using Usenet for at least 15 years.

    • 32, and no I didn't question it.
      I was probably there with you :P
    • by femtobyte (710429)

      20 years ago, there wasn't a highly developed industry devoted to tracking your every internet move for profit. Now there is. That changes a lot --- the HR drone 30 years from now may not recognize the "LinkedIn" brand-name, but they'll be able to pull up every bit of collected data, meticulously passed from tracking corporation to tracking corporation at every merger, to determine if your past life conforms to a suitably-exploitable profile.

  • Don't do it! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by The Good Reverend (84440) <`moc.sirhcim' `ta' `leahcim'> on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:41PM (#42865273) Homepage Journal

    I've never understood the fascination so many tech luddites and techies-who-think-they're-cool-by-hating-being-on-the-internet to try to erase their online presence. It'll only come back to bite you.

    You don't have to share everything, but establishing your presence and "owning your name" gives you some measure of control in regards to what people find if they search for you. If you go the "you can't see me" route, anyone with a vendetta or anything (good or bad) that gets you in the news is suddenly all anyone searching sees. You can't control everything by being online, but you certainly have more control than if you try to hide.

    • You don't have to share everything, but establishing your presence and "owning your name" gives you some measure of control in regards to what people find if they search for you.

      I'm less worried about my reputation and more worried about people looking for ways to leverage inadvertantly disclosed information about me to their own advantage. If your are lucky the best you can expect is to control some of what google shows on the first page of search results under your name. That's only good for the most casual of searchers - anyone actively looking for dirt on you will go far past that first page of hits.

      With respect to reputation if you do suddenly get famous enough to be "in th

    • by grumbel (592662)

      gives you some measure of control in regards to what people find if they search for you.

      Only when you are into search-engine-optimization, otherwise you can write insightful stuff for years, but some silly blog post that got popular for one reason or another might bobble up to the top of the search results. All the stuff you do online isn't really properly reflected by the search results people get when they input your name, only a small seemingly random portion is.

  • change your name (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stenvar (2789879) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:42PM (#42865283)

    You can erase your history completely if you change your name. Your new name (if well chosen) will have no Internet history associated with it.

    • Re:change your name (Score:5, Interesting)

      by EvilSS (557649) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:59PM (#42865553)
      Or pick one so popular that it's impossible to pick you out of all of the other John Smiths on the net.
      • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Monday February 11, 2013 @05:23PM (#42865931)

        Or pick one so popular that it's impossible to pick you out of all of the other John Smiths on the net.

        Exactly. It is far easier to hide in a crowd of a million than yourself in an empty field.

        Anyone considering getting a fake id in real life should pick from the most common first and family names (there are name frequency lists you can google for) - John Smith really is super common but it is almost a cliche. If you go with something like Tom Johnson you will still be in the company of hundreds of thousands of other Tom Johnsons and not seem quite so fake.

      • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

        Most service that claim to need your real name actually just need a real sounding name. There is no need to use your actual name in the first place.

      • by greg1104 (461138) <gsmith@gregsmith.com> on Monday February 11, 2013 @07:04PM (#42866875) Homepage

        Not necessarily. True story: I once had "Greg Smith Equipment Sales" try to buy my web site because I was messing with their search rank. What really killed both of us was a baseball player with that name though. Once ESPN started writing about him I was done with being in the top 3. I wouldn't recommend just any common name; what you really want is the name of a celebrity. I use "Michael Bolton" now.

  • Many years ago you could e-mail an address at google, yahoo, as well as others and they would remove your personal data from the listings. I used to do it every year. Do a search on my self and remove all reference to me. It worked great but they all stopped it and no longer honor requests for removal.

    They really should bring it back, Not saying there needs to be a law but a movement to be an upstanding member of the online community and let you request removal of your information.

  • Of course it is, do you have a very large asteroid handy?
  • I'm not on the internet in the first place. Any site that asks for a real name didn't get one. I never touched myspace or facebook, etc. Even my Gmail name is fake. So I'm all set.
    • by 1s44c (552956)

      I'm not on the internet in the first place. Any site that asks for a real name didn't get one. I never touched myspace or facebook, etc. Even my Gmail name is fake. So I'm all set.

      Doesn't gmail log every IP you logged in from?

      • by tftp (111690)

        Doesn't gmail log every IP you logged in from?

        GMail can read your mail; that is a bigger hole than the IP address of a coffee shop.

        Google, however, usually does not have a need to try and discover your real life identity. It is not automatically published for everyone to see. That is what is important. If a corporation sells your browser fingerprint, use a different browser. This one, FF with AdBlock + NoScript + Ghostery + whatever else, shows no ads, blocks web bugs, and runs no scripts. It may still

  • by caywen (942955) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:47PM (#42865353)

    I have a solution, but it involves simultaneous use of biological viruses and nukes. At a minimum, my solution will at least erase anyone's desire to care.

  • I make people think I'm another harmless fool on the internet.

    By pretty much being another harmless fool on the internet.

    Remember. Sincerity is the key to everything.

    Once you can fake that, the rest is easy.

  • by Animats (122034) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:52PM (#42865433) Homepage

    While, in the US (or even the EU), we're not likely to see a "right to be forgotten", we might have a "right not to have one's identity exploited for advertising purposes". You should be able to quit an ad-supported service and insist that none of your data every appear on a page with an ad. If it does, the advertiser has to pay you a publicity fee. California has a law like that for photos - if you use someone's photo in an ad without their permission, you owe them at least $500 - much more if they're famous.

  • by TsuruchiBrian (2731979) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:53PM (#42865443)

    If 100% of everything anyone ever did and said were preserved for all of history, it would be the best thing that could happen for privacy.

    Sure everyone could find any information they wanted, but that information would be less exploitable.

    For example, a company you applied for a job to finds a picture of you getting wasted on New Years. Should they not hire you because you are a drunk? Well it turns out that they can also find drunk pictures of just about every applicant so you are no different.

    Every single "bad" thing about you will either turn out to be something that is not really that bad in light of the fact that almost everyone does it, or actually bad (in which case you might need to go to jail).

    Another example: Your girlfriend finds out you cheated on her using google. You are an asshole. It also turns out that 70% of the people she knows have cheated. It also turns out she cheated on you too. This sucks. Well yes, but was it worse than when we all successfully hid our cheating? At least now cheating doesn't seem as bad. In fact it may not even be considered cheating anymore since everyone knows about it immediately after it happens.

    The real reason for wanting privacy is to not be able to be singled out. If everyone is able to be singled out, then nobody is able to be singled out. When a regular polygon gets infinite sides, it becomes a circle with 0 sides.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The real reason for wanting privacy is to not be able to be singled out.

      Why do bathrooms have stalls then? We all go, and we all know that we all go.

      Privacy has value beyond not being singled out.

      I would hate to live in the world you described.

      • It's only because you have been brought up in a world of stalls that this seems abnormal. Raise you kids in a world of stall-less bathrooms and they wouldn't think twice about it. Those crazy kids and their rock and roll music, why can't they listen to bee bop like we used to do...
    • I have nothing else to say but that seemed relevant
    • by Shagg (99693)

      Or go with Plan B: Don't cheat.

      • Who are you, the Pope?
      • by russotto (537200)

        Or go with Plan B: Don't cheat.

        Might work in the specific case, but not the general. As Richilieu said, "If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged. "

        The more tortured the logic from the "evidence" to the accusation the better. And the best part? Any defense you raise only makes you sound guilty.

    • by SirGarlon (845873)

      The real reason for wanting privacy is to not be able to be singled out.

      You can't control who will single you out, or for what. If I am someone who judges people harshly based on X, then I only care whether you do/have done X, or not. I don't care how many other people have done X, because I am looking at *you* and judging you based on X.

      So the fact that 75% of people have done X is irrelevant, and the fact that you have done 93 other things that are mildly embarrassing is irrelevant. If X, then I treat yo

      • So you expect an extreme minority of do-gooders to somehow come into power and wealth and suppress the flawed majority?
  • by MonkeyBot (545313) on Monday February 11, 2013 @04:53PM (#42865449)
    I was thinking about this earlier today while reading the article on Raytheon's Riot Program. I don't know if you can effectively remove yourself from the internet, but you might be able to muddy up your profiles with garbage to the point that the information that can be gleaned about you from the internet is of little or no value to a mass data harvester like Riot. I think this is the way to go in the future. You can't erase the data someone has already compiled about you, but you can feed the beast garbage until it vomits.
  • Mid-80s UNIX discussion groups. Used the the telephone version of the internet at the beginning. I used my real name them because thats all schools would allow on your account. Plus local servers erased stuff 30 days old due to disk space then. I never foresaw ten years later google would buy up all the archives and put it searchable online. But now google has "aged out" lots of its older stuff. Or it drops 50 pages deep unless you home in on it exactly.
  • No you can't erase yourself from the internet. Free Speech means people can talk about you. They can talk about where you live, what you did, and all the things they hate about you. You may be able to erase a few things you posted here or there, but you can't erase history without trampling on peoples civil rights.
  • Oh how I wish the wayback machine could remove all the old geocities data...

    • by 1s44c (552956)

      Oh how I wish the wayback machine could remove all the old geocities data...

      Because it's a waste of disk storage?

  • I'm not taking any chances. I'm repartitioning and reformatting the Internet, wiping 37 times with random 1's and 0's
  • Do you remember what you posted on that music forum in 2004?

    I have never posted to a music forum. But if I did post something offensive or objectionable so what? Anyone that judges too harshly on such minor matters is best avoided anyway.

    Or which services you tried for webmail before Gmail?

    I used my own webmail before and after gmail. I once setup a gmail account solely to send my mail server test emails.

    It discusses how difficult it is to get your data removed from Facebook

    I've never had a facebook account. If I wanted the US government to build semantic graphs about my interpersonal relationships then I'd get a facebook account, but until that time I don't see the need for facebook in

  • by Tumbleweed (3706) on Monday February 11, 2013 @05:23PM (#42865925)
    "It's like peeing in a pool. Once it's in there, it's _in_ there." - some old 90s sitcom
  • rm -fR -u $USER /dev/eth0 should work.
  • Sneaky fuckers... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anachragnome (1008495) on Monday February 11, 2013 @05:46PM (#42866191)

    Sneaky fuckers...

    What do you think is the best method to get people to update old data? Require them to prove themselves in order to delete it, then simply ignore their request to delete it.

    The moment you touch that old data, you've updated it with your current IP address. Once they have that, they can then connect the dots between new and old data, thus providing them with a much greater amount of information.

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