Can You Disappear on the Web?

Scrubbing the Web of personal information is a tough, maybe impossible, task.

ByABC News
May 6, 2011, 2:36 PM

May 7, 2011— -- Are you sick and tired of worrying about your personal information circulating on the web? Concerned about peers, businesses and potential employers unearthing something unsavory in search results?

In 2009, a site called the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine emerged, potentially serving as a saving grace to anyone who wished to wipe the Web clean of his or her digital identity.

The Suicide Machine can disable people's active Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts, but does it really remove you from the web?

In a word: no.

If you're interested in disappearing on the web, Don Jackson director of Threat Intelligence at Dell SecureWorks brings bad news.

"It's easier to change your real-life identity, put yourself into a do-it-yourself witness protection program than it is to change your identity on the Web," Jackson told Discovery News.

In other words, if personal information is floating around on the web, it's a tall -- impossible, perhaps -- task to make it vanish into thin (virtual) air.

"You're not in active control of your information, so if you define 'privacy' as the control over your information, you still have privacy, but it's so hard to exercise it that many people would just give up," Jackson said.

For instance, Jackson loathes the snapshot of his home that shows up on Google's street view. Taken in the winter time, it appears as though the Internet security expert lives in a dreary wasteland, which could turn off potential buyers if he ever chooses to put his house up for sale. But even though Jackson owns the house that Google broadcasts across the Internet, he doesn't own the right to remove its image.

Once Content Is Online, It's Hard to Take It Down

"I would like for Google street view to take my house off their service, but I'm not going to be able to," Jackson said. "It's public information, and as far as they're concerned, I don't have a right to demand that they take it down."

People concerned about data tracking and protecting their personal data from being poached by online marketing firms are essentially defenseless as well, Jackson says.

"Even these programs that let you opt out of data collection and tracking, the way they create that on the fly and can go back later and link data points together, you can never be able to really opt-out, so those opt-out programs are really disingenuous just the amount of information they collect and how they tie it all together," he explained.

Even removing discrete bits of information that can be traced back to you, such as inane tweets and party pictures on Facebook, is unfeasible on the Web because you can't control whether others will copy, paste and send it out into the great digital beyond. Moreover, you can't manage what other people might be publishing about your activities and whereabouts as well.

"When you have your profiles online, you can certainly take them down, but we're in this age of peer-producing of content, so people can take your content, replicate it and put it on different sites," says Fred Stutzman, a software developer and online privacy expert at Carnegie Mellon University. "Once something gets out there, it's very hard to get it back."

And even if you exercise lock-tight online privacy and have led a saintly life, you can also have the tough luck of sharing a name with someone who hasn't. Digital doppelgangers, as Stutzman refers to them, can overtake the Google results when people search your name, potentially misidentify you as a criminal or n'er-do-well.