Starting over: Digital Self-destruction

Background

A friend of mine recently approached me and asked for advice on how to start over online. He’d been going through some changes in life and he wanted a “clean slate”. That’s an interesting problem to me so I started thinking about it. I came up with a list of steps and recommendations. I don’t know if it’s complete or even effective, but I thought it might be worth codifying in words somewhere more permanent than in a Discord PM.

The Problem

Persistent digital accounts, particularly as one ages and their interests and priorities change, tend to pile up and remain dormant with their content on grim display for all to see. Given the modern data panopticon hell, is there a way to remove them?

The goal here includes the tacit acceptance that it is not effectively possible to have your prior persona absolutely detached from your current one; state actors, surveillance advertising companies, and sufficiently motivated people WILL find out who you are, or at least who you were at any given point in time. Don’t feel bad, they’ve had more time, motivation, and resources to throw at this than you have. After all, you spent your life living and they spent their lives watching you do it. The most you can seem to do is obfuscate yourself from casual observers connecting the you that you are now to the old you.

A Process

At it’s most basic form, the means of achieving this goal looks like this:

  1. Get a new email. This is the cornerstone for building up an identity and required for virtually any interaction you perform on the internet.
  2. Build list of exceptions to the nuke and pave. This is the accounts either tied hard to meatspace like banking and insurance, or that have non-transferable monetary value like online shopping accounts that have digital purchases tethered to them, apple/android/microsoft accounts (more digital purchases), and other things that can’t just be trivially replaced*. This list should be handwritten** and contain usernames and passwords written in a way that distinguishes upper and lower case letters. I normally keep neat handwriting, but I prefer an underline on anything uppercase, zeroes with strikethroughs, serif ones, and a line through z’s so that they aren’t mistaken as twos. This removes all doubt for me for any passwords I might have created years ago (which really should be changed by now probably).
  3. Go to each of the sites in number 2 and update the email to the new one. Maybe consider changing the password also, because it’s probably been a while.
  4. Start closing superfluous (any other) accounts (when possible). This will cause some of the information in them to at least become less public (in theory) but it will also remove the urge to go back to your previous accounts out of convenience or baiting from the account provider. Mangle whatever data is in the ones you cannot close so that it is at least publicly less identifying and/or useful.
  5. Wipe computer(s)/phone(s) and start over. If you can’t/won’t do this, then at a minimum delete all browser data. Sign in to the browser with the new email if you’re in to that kind of thing.

*This is a necessary evil and is practically unavoidable in a lot of ways, but philosophically if you have to let something know who you are every time you use something, you don’t own it and that entity is your master, at least in that context. Limit the action of paying people who don’t have your best interest at heart for things that those same people don’t want to let you own.

**Yes, password managers exist. I use lastpass myself. For non-web based passwords and other sensitive things like product keys I store them in Encryptic. They’re not 100% secure (probably not even Encryptic yet) and I don’t think they should be recommended as the default unless you’re aware and willing to accept the risks. If you go this route, make sure that you update yours to point to the new email address. But remember: You can remove passwords from a password manager and you can destroy a sheet of paper. One leaves you with a blank screen and the other one leaves you with a pile of ashes. Which one was actually destroyed, and how do you know?

Options

Alone in the Crowd, or, “I am Spartacus!”

Change your name. This is probably the single most effective thing I can think of. It’s time consuming and expensive, but apparently not as much as I thought it was. From thelawdictionary.org, it seems that the cost to change your legal name within the US is somewhere between $150-500 (https://thelawdictionary.org/article/how-much-does-it-cost-to-change-your-name/). This requires extensive paperwork and time as well as court approval, but the latter is not impossible to receive and “I don’t like my old name” can be a valid reason, at least in certain situations.

If you do change your name, then as far as I can tell there will be a public record of going before the court as well as the name change itself. In some places you may need to announce the name change in a newspaper or provide some other means of declaring it at your cost. This means that, again, anyone wanting to find out who you are bad enough will. However, if your name is “Oneofakind Uniquesberg” and you change your name to “John Smith”, you’ll probably be far more difficult to pick out of the sea of similar names in the world. See also https://blogs.ancestry.com/cm/calling-james-smith-10-most-common-first-and-surname-combinations/. I’ll be Robert Smith and you be Maria Martinez.

Lie Your Ass Off and Don’t Stop

Okay, so you can’t/won’t change your name. What if you just lie to everyone (without perjuring) about who/what you are? Before God, State, and Bank of America (arranged from least to most dangerous) I’m known as Brad because I have to be otherwise I’ll get my ass put in jail, but to everyone else, I’m Fred Frederickson. Or whatever. Not really, but it COULD be. This isn’t effective against anyone who can see that you logged in to your bank and a false account from the same IP, but for anyone reading a comments section on youtube, it’s probably good enough. This is probably in violation of almost all Terms of Service everywhere, which is not yet a hangable offense, but may constitute hacking in sufficiently dystopic areas. See https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2018/01/ninth-circuit-doubles-down-violating-websites-terms-service-not-crime. I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV.

External Assistance

Services exist that claim they can clean up your internet footprint (example: https://joindeleteme.com) and it looks like they mostly operate via removing you from the databases of so called “Data Brokers”. I’m skeptical of the ultimate usefulness of this, particularly at $129/year, but I haven’t tried to make use of the service either. My provided example also offers a “free diy” guide at: https://joindeleteme.com/help/diy-free-opt-out-guide/. That may be worth investigating later.

The Treadmill Effect

Ultimately it seems all you buy yourself is time before sooner or later there is enough bytes of data out there that someone can make the connection between who you are and who you were. You have to keep moving to create a persona that cannot be attached to the previous you. Even then someone sufficiently motivated will still be able to track you down. See https://www.wired.com/2009/11/ff-vanish2/. Granted, there was 5000USD on the line as well as a public challenge issued but this shows that even if you spend large amounts of time and money disappearing, even the tiniest mistakes can’t stop someone with mere Average American levels of resources from locating you. You have to keep changing your identities, which means that you’re not building any lasting relationships with people, which means you might as well not have those accounts to begin with.

The Logical Inconclusion

Frustratingly, I can’t see any end to this. Identifying a useful method of starting over and then acting upon it results in a scenario who’s outcome is unverifiable. If you can successfully and permanently detach yourself from your prior persona, you can’t exactly state so without causing the failure of the experiment.

Supposedly hundreds of thousands of people disappear in the US every year (https://www.reference.com/government-politics/many-people-missing-year-8e9fc97c68b730f4). Obviously a lot of that is foul play, but I assume some of those are intentional self-motivated disappearances, so how many of them are actively being sought after? Does anyone want to find them? If so, and (since) they haven’t been found, how did they do it?


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