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How to disappear

By Sam Sedgman on 7/2/14

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Image: Daniel Oines, via Flickr Commons

In his piece for the Guernica & Free Word special edition on free expression, Ariel Dorfman asks “would we, can we, do we even wish to, escape the social media universe of our time?”. We wanted to take a closer look at that question, and ask, in a world of social media and pervasive online surveillance, what we can really do to protect ourselves.

'Repression by any other name' - read Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman's feature on surveillance and the state in Guernica & Free Word's special issue on free expression.

Social Media has long overtaken pornography as the number one activity on the internet. Facebook has 1.19 billion active users worldwide, and a quarter of the world’s population have become regular social media users – a proportion that’s growing rapidly. The rise of social media has brought with it a shift in how we communicate, and how we live, and has made mass surveillance possible on a scale like never before.

Map of the world’s social media activity

Recent events in the Arab world and elsewhere have demonstrated the degree to which social media has empowered individual citizens to speak out against their governments – circumnavigating traditional models of censorship. However, alongside this, social media also makes it far easier for states to retaliate against those individuals, whose identities can be easily traced through the accounts they used to post messages. This has led us to a new era of self-censorship: where that power to speak is undercut by the fear of constant monitoring and surveillance.

Israel detains 25 Palestinian activists over Facebook posts

Anonymity, in this world, is a hard thing to come by. When Wired writer Evan Ratliff tried to disappear for a month in a 2009 feature, the magazine’s readers pooled their resources to try and track him down. Ratliff had to go to great lengths to wipe himself off the grid: he swapped credit cards for cash, ditched his mobile phone, deleted his email account and set up a remote office to mask his location for the occasions he was forced online. He changed his name; he wore disguises; he shaved his head. Some of the techniques Ratliff used to disappear might seem extreme, but they’re essential if you want to make yourself truly undetectable. He recounts the paranoia, the isolation, and above all the boredom that comes when you unplug yourself from your life.

How to disappear completely

Because deleting your own social media accounts isn’t enough. Even if you found it possible to adapt your life to accommodate these changes, the trails left by your friends and family – their status updates, their Instagram photos - would make you very easy to follow. To really disappear online, you have to disappear offline as well – abandoning your friends, your family, your life. Like it or not, we live our lives through the web - and to unplug yourself to avoid the risk of being spied on really means isolating yourself from other people.

How to permanently delete your Facebook account

But there is another way to throw prying eyes off the trail of your online identity. Spreading misinformation can be just as effective as trying to delete information that’s already out there. Creating fake online identities for yourself, posting bogus updates, tagging another face as your own… by flooding the web with false information you can make your real identity much harder to trace. Hiding in a cloud of noise can be a lot easier than trying to be absolutely silent – and lets you stay connected to the world around you.

10 ways to wipe yourself off the grid

This is, of course, a matter of degrees. We are not all fleeing a dedicated team of tech-savvy investigators. Though freedom to be constantly watched is, as Ariel vividly explains, not really freedom at all. Vanishing, or making yourself undetectable, requires a lot of time and money, and really isn’t possible for most of us. But those of us who have elected to live on the grid should at least be as responsible as we can there.

See which companies are tracking you on Facebook – and block them

25% of Facebook users don't bother using their privacy settings. If you’re one of them, you could be advertising information about your friends as well as yourself – so take a moment to clue up on it. But, Facebook aside, there are a number of simple things we can all do to protect our personal information: 

Strong passwords. It’s tempting to have one password for all your online accounts, but this can leave you vulnerable. Rather than try and hold dozens of different codes in your head, try and come up with a system for generating a unique password for each site. For example, start all your passwords with the same 6 characters, and finish with the last 4 letters of the site’s name. Remember too to try and mix upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols.

Antivirus software. It’s a no-brainer; and there are plenty of excellent programmes out there for free.

Know your rights. Murky surveillance practices aside, there are laws outlining what companies and government bodies are and are not allowed to do with your personal information. Online resources like this PDF from the Information Commissioner’s Office can help you understand what’s likely to happen to information once you share it.

Think before you share. The web can often give a false sense of privacy. Think about how comfortable you’d be sharing the information you put online with a stranger you met on the bus.

Take control. You are the source for most of the information about you on the web. You needn’t become a paranoid recluse, but you should always be sensible. Use common sense, take precautions, and always think about what you’re sharing, and who might be able to access it. Your identity has value. Look after it.

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This post was created as part of Free Word & Guernica's special issue on free expression, in association with English PEN and ARTICLE 19, and supported by Open Society Foundations. Read the complete issue at guernicamag.com, including Ariel Dorfman's feature, 'Repression by Any Other Name'.

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