Whether you are privacy minded or not, it’s very difficult to be completely anonymous online. Over the years you might have posted on social media, downloaded apps, entered competitions or opened accounts which required details such as your email address, phone number, age, gender and more.
That information might not be publicly available online for people to Google, but it’s there nonetheless. That’s why you end up with so much spam email. But there can be more serious consequences. For instance, a wild post from a fantastic holiday in the sun may have seemed appropriate at the time, but a few years later it could come back to haunt you, such as when applying for a job.
Offhand comments made on forums or below news stories can also be something used against you down the line, not to mention the potential for people to track down your actual location by piecing together information you’ve shared online.
This information tends to get collated in databases which are controlled by ‘data brokers’. These can then be sold to companies that want to advertise directly to you or try to influence your voting habits by serving you up with targeted content intended to convince you to support your usual candidate or even switch sides.
All of this, of course, happens behind the scenes, making it harder to keep your guard up. There’s also the threat of identity theft, where someone gains enough information about you to set up accounts in your name or take over existing accounts. That can lead to a whole world of trouble.
Recently we’ve also seen the emergence of disgusting things like revenge porn, where people create fake images of people in compromising sexual positions or share private videos/photos never intended to be seen by the world. The good news is that your data might be protected by GDPR or another privacy law, and it might well be possible to remove your information from those databases or websites.
Here we’ll explain how to go about doing this, which methods are free and how much it’ll cost you to use those that aren’t. Bear in mind that a lot of this stuff is very far from instant and that it is virtually impossible to completely delete yourself from the internet.
How to remove yourself from Google Search results
The main place people search for things is on Google, so this is a good place to start when you want to reduce your online presence. In 2022, the company introduced its ‘Results about you’ tool that can help make it easy to request the removal of listings that show your phone number, home address or email address. The tool doesn’t seem to be universally available at the time of writing.
It works in the US but not the UK, but Google says that it will be rolling out very soon.
To use the tool, here are the steps you need to take:
Open Google Search
In a web browser, go to www.google.com and enter your name into the search bar. To make things a bit more accurate, especially if you don’t have an unusual name, try also adding your home city or organisation to the search query.
Select a search
When you see the completed search results for yourself, check to see if any display your phone number, home or email address. If one does, click the three dots in the top right corner of the result card.
Request its removal
At the bottom of the next screen you’ll see an option to ‘Remove result’. Tap this then follow the instructions on how to send your request to Google.
You can also submit removal requests for content such as revenge porn, deepfake content or other potentially malicious or harmful listings by visiting the ‘Remove your personal information from Google’ page.
It should be noted, that while Google may remove the search listing from its results, this won’t take the content down from the site that holds it. To do that, you’ll need to contact the owner of the site directly and request the removal of the content itself.
Also, there are archive sites including the Wayback Machine that keep old versions of web pages alive. Removing your data from here could be difficult, but you can use the site’s Contact page to make a request.
How to remove potentially criminal content
If the content you’re trying to remove is criminal in nature, such as revenge porn, doxing information or deepfake sexual images, then you should contact the police if the site owner proves uncooperative when asked to remove the items. Sadly, it can be quite difficult to eradicate this kind of content as it’s often moved to other sites, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
The Revenge Porn Helpline is a good source of information for those dealing with this upsetting form of online abuse.
How to delete your details from data brokers
It’s remarkably easy to build up a complete picture about someone if you know how. Data brokers collect PII (personally identifiable information) and can piece together a frighteningly accurate summary, gathered from various sources such as quizzes on social media, online accounts, competitions you’ve entered and other seemingly innocent pursuits. These can then be packaged and sold to advertisers or other companies that want to target specific demographics.
There are quite a few data brokers around the world, with some of the biggest including Acxiom, PeopleFinder, Radaris, Equifax and Experian. You can approach each site individually and go through their process for removing yourself from their records, but this can be incredibly time consuming and may not even end in success. There are some very helpful resources out there, including the site DataBrokersWatch that tracks and maps the data broker ecosystem so that you have a better idea of who may be holding your data. It also provides helpful opt-out forms for the largest culprits.
If you want a more thorough approach to escaping the clutches of data brokers, then you’ll probably want to pay a professional service to act on your behalf. You can opt for the likes of DeleteMe that will work to remove all your personal information from search engines while also monitoring any new ones that appear. The service costs $129 (approx. £108) per year for one person and there are other tiers if you want to add more members of your family or friends.
How to beef up your social media privacy settings
If you don’t want to delete your social media accounts (which is a good option for privacy), then the next best thing is to ensure that the security and privacy settings are the way you want them.
For example, there are various ways to secure Facebook, including changing your posts to a status where only your friends or particular people can see them, deleting older posts that you don’t want to remain public, reducing your friendship list, hide your birthday or other personal details that might be available on your profile. Most of these adjustments can be found by going to Facebook, clicking on your Profile icon then selecting Settings & privacy.
Facebook offers a ‘Privacy Checkup’ feature that can take you through the various options and allow you to tailor the amount of information you expose to the world.
The same approach should be taken on your other social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. If there are any you no longer use, it’s a good idea to log in one last time and delete your account entirely.
How to delete social media accounts
If you want to go the whole hog, then deleting your social media accounts should greatly lower your online presence. Using Facebook as the main example again, you can request a copy of all the information it has on you by going to your account, clicking on your profile icon and selecting Settings and privacy > Settings > Privacy > Your Facebook Information.
Next to the Download profile information option, select View. Then look through the data that’s there and select the categories you want to download. When you’re all done, select the Request download option.
If you want to permanently delete your account, then Facebook has instructions available to make this happen or you can read our How to delete Facbook tutorial.
Be aware that Facebook states, ‘Some information, such as messaging history, isn’t stored in your account. This means that friends may still have access to messages that you sent after your account has been deleted.’ The company also says that it retains some log records in its database, but these are disassociated from personal identifiers so they shouldn’t be traced back to you.
It’s a similar process on other social media accounts, so check out our guides on how to delete a Twitter, Instagram or WhatsApp account.
Do also note that deleting the app from your phone (as shown above) is not the same as deleting your account!
How to delete old online accounts
If you’ve been using the internet for a while, then there’s a good chance that you’ll have signed up to various services and sites that you no longer use. Sadly, there’s no quick way to wipe all of this out, so you’ll need to go through your memory or search in your password manager to track down all those abandoned accounts that still have your name on them. Although it will be time consuming, this kind of spring-clean is generally a good idea as it also lessens the change for hackers to find a way into your old accounts (that probably don’t feature security settings like two-factor authentication) and steal your information. Don’t forget old email services too.
How to stay anonymous online
It’s pretty hard to live in the 21st century without using the internet in one form or another. So how can you prevent the whole digital life scenario from happening again? Well, innovations like Apple’s Hide My Email service can produce proxy email addresses that allow you to sign up to things online without revealing your real address.
If you’re on Android, then Firefox Relay is a similar service for creating aliases. Alternatively, you can create a free email address from any service, giving it a name that bears no resemblance to you, then use it solely for signing up to things online.
When surfing the web (do people still say that?), you should also use a VPN to stop companies (such as your ISP) from tracking you. A VPNs creates a secure connection through which your information travels, remaining encrypted at all times. You can see the services we recommend by reading our roundup of the best VPN services.
One thing you shouldn’t do is wrongly assume your web browser’s private (incognito) mode makes you anonymous online. It doesn’t. It simply ensures your browsing history isn’t recorded on the device you’re using. If you’re open to switching, try the Brave Browser which is designed to help protect your privacy.
In truth, you can’t disappear entirely from the web. But following the steps above should drastically reduce the amount of information about you that can be found.