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…