Welcome to Bad Ideas, a column in which we examine the practical limits of technology by considering the things you could do and then investigating exactly why you shouldn’t. Because you can still learn from mistakes you’ll never make.
“You have to get rid of the idea that you can ‘disappear from the internet.’ It just doesn’t exist.” This is what Frank Ahearn, a private investigator who specializes in helping people disappear, told me when I asked how I could erase my digital self.
After years of tying my real name to just about everything I do on the internet, I wanted to attempt my worst Bad Idea yet: faking my own death online. Partially an ill-advised strategy to reclaim my online anonymity, I also just wanted to know whether it was possible to just disappear from the web. When everything we do online is tracked, commodified, and sold right back to us, how nice would it be to know that, at any point, we could just pull the plug? The Big Unsubscribe. The Ultimate Op-Out.
I reached out to Ahearn and a moderator of Reddit’s r/Privacy subreddit, a community of internet privacy enthusiasts, to devise an ironclad disappearance method. Their guidance was not reassuring. My best bet for finding anonymity online, it turned out, wasn’t to scrub the internet of any data related to my identity — apparently that’s pretty much impossible — but instead to fill the web with more data. To disappear these days, the experts said, you need to run a massive disinformation campaign about yourself.
A few minutes into our conversation, Ahearn, who literally wrote a book titled How to Disappear and makes a living helping people evade blackmailers, made it clear that no matter how hard I tried, or how good he was, there was no way we’d be able to wipe my internet slate clean.
Ahearn says my first impulse, to fake my own death online, would not work. “It would only draw more interest to you, not less; and in all likelihood, most people wouldn’t buy it,” says Ahearn. But even deleting all my accounts, switching to a VPN, and using a Tor browser wouldn’t be enough to expunge evidence of my online existence.
“For the majority of us in society, there’s always gonna be a piece of information. It’s like fighting the tides,” he told me.
“The internet never forgets, so it’s challenging to erase what crumbs you left behind,” says u/Trai_Dep, a moderator for Reddit’s r/Privacy subreddit. “Because it’s often someone else’s data, or because it itself has been split into ways you didn’t anticipate.”
The Big Unsubscribe. The Ultimate Op-Out.
Ultimately, you can scrub bits and pieces of your digital life, but there’s always new data. You might have deleted your Facebook and Instagram accounts, but people you know, and even ones you might not, are still posting about you. When Vice’s Anna Merlan secured photos of herself on file with Clearview AI — the facial recognition firm that’s trying to sell your face to the police, and working to acquire every single mugshot in the U.S. — they were scraped from not her account, but from a number of accounts that had posted her photo online.
Or things that were once offline suddenly surface online.
“You might have a utility account 10 years ago, and then all of a sudden utility companies decide to sell their data,” explains Ahearn. “Next thing you know, your address and phone number from that utility company is online in a database.”
A better method, Ahearn explains, may be to play into the very nature of the internet by increasing the amount of public data available about you.
My best bet, Ahearn suggested, was running a one-man disinformation campaign by creating digital duplicates of myself. Instead of killing off Steve Rousseau, I’d have to create an army of Steve Rousseaus, and vanish into the crowd.
That means not just deleting my Facebook account, but creating a half-dozen more with false birthdays, locations, and interests. Ahearn even suggests seeding those offline databases with misinformation.
“Most online information actually comes from public records — utility companies, cable companies essentially, “ he says. “You can contact your cable company and give them something like a fake phone number. So you start, basically, manipulating your offline data before it shows up online.”
People can still search for you, but now they have to sort through duplicate accounts with phone numbers that don’t exist and places you’ve never lived. And for the average person, whose only threat is likely a hiring manager looking for some bad tweets, this is probably the best one can hope for, explains u/Trai_Dep.
“Is your adversary an overworked HR junior manager? Then you probably can seed the internet with a preferred version of your identity,” they explain. “They’ve got three minutes and 15 other applicants to get to, so it may work.”
Disinformation isn’t foolproof, however. If someone wants to find you — like say law enforcement or a government agency — they’ll find you no matter how many fake Facebook accounts you have.
“It won’t matter how much garbage data there is, since mining at scale is done by keyword searches and other algorithmic means,” says u/Trai_Dep. “These will find the useful information whether there are 50 or 50,000 bits of data with [your name] attached to it.”
Even if you can’t totally disappear from the internet, explains u/Trai_Dep, you can still mitigate your exposure. Take an honest look at yourself and decide what’s worth trying to hide, and what isn’t — known within the privacy community as a “threat assessment.”
While there are some members of r/Privacy who advocate for complete anonymity — insofar as it’s possible on the internet — using a VPN, browsing the internet with Tor, chatting over Signal or even switching to the privacy-focused version of Linux, The Amnesic Incognito Live System (TAILS), u/Trai_Dep admits that it can eventually become impractical.
“Sometimes people — and in particular some of our wonderful and esteemed r/Privacy subscribers — crank up their privacy settings to the point where it detracts from the quality of their lives,” says u/Trai_Dep. “Is it really worth booting up TAILS if all you want to do is browse kitty pictures before you go to bed? Do you really need to teach your nephew how to download and run a Tor-compliant browser before you can help him with his algebra homework?”
Instead of killing off Steve Rousseau, I’d have to create an army of Steve Rousseaus, and vanish into the crowd.
There is no ideal level of internet privacy. There is no ideal way to exist online. There are so many things about the internet, especially now that we’re all stuck inside our homes, that make that Faustian bargain worth making.
“Before I get into ‘can someone completely hide themselves from the internet,’ I’d ask them — after shaking them by the shoulders — why would you want to?,” says u/Trai_Dep.
And even among these super-dedicated privacy enthusiasts, they’re only one human error from giving it all away. “Keeping your privacy shields dialed to ‘11’ all the time is exhausting, and when you’re tired, you’ll make mistakes. Thus making all your efforts futile,” says u/Trai_Dep.
Of course, if you have enough money, anything is possible. Even disappearing from the internet. Two years ago, “Bitcoin evangelist” Jameson Lopp embarked on a quest to disappear. He is still very much alive, but if you try to find out where he lives, when he was born, or any other personally identifiable information on the internet, you’re going to come up with nothing.
While he might not be the first to completely disappear — if people are able to successfully do it, we’d have little way of knowing — the cryptocurrency engineer is certainly the most public. In detailing his resource-intensive process to the New York Times last year, Lopp described how he created an LLC, bought a decoy house, used a pseudonym with anyone he met in public, and hired a private investigator to check his work. In the end, Lopp estimated that it took $30,000 to fall off the face of the Earth.