People have the right to hide their pasts—as long as they are European. That essentially was the ruling of the European Union’s highest court in May, which said Google must grant requests by individuals to delete certain links to information about themselves. However, even people in Europe will continue to find it difficult to hide in an increasingly exposed world.
Much of our private personal lives—including embarrassing remnants of the past, our spending habits, even our location at any given time—will continue to be available for corporations, the government, former spouses, our neighbors, scammers, stalkers and anyone else to uncover.
But there are steps you can take to reduce their ability to invade your privacy. Bottom Line/Personal asked Frank Ahearn, an expert on hiding, to describe some of those methods…
HIDE YOUR PAST
Even an honest, respectable person may have something in his/her past that he would prefer to keep private. For some, it’s an old relationship…for others, an ill-considered comment in a speech or to a reporter…or even an old arrest for an embarrassing infraction. An employer who learns of someone’s past mistake might decide not to hire or promote the person…a civic organization might decide not to accept or affiliate with the person…even new neighbors might be wary. Unfortunately, the Internet can prevent our old mistakes from ever fading away. You could ask a Web site to take down private details from your past, but the site might not agree to do so, and even if it does, the information might just pop up elsewhere on the Internet. The truth is that there is no realistic way to completely erase information from the Internet. To really protect yourself from your past, you might have to take somewhat extreme measures.
What to do: If you cannot make troubling information disappear, make it appear that the information is not about you. To do this, you create an imaginary person who has the same name as you. You set up phony Facebook and LinkedIn pages for this person and perhaps a blog as well. Include details that strongly link this person to the event from your past that you wish to escape. Use keywords on these pages that someone is likely to search for if that pursuer wants to know more about you.
Example: If you’re trying to hide the fact that you belonged to an extreme political movement back in college, use the name of that political movement prominently in the fake person’s Facebook and LinkedIn pages. Add personal details that clearly establish that this fake person is not you. (Don’t add a fake photo—you could get sued for using a stranger’s photo without permission, and modern technology makes it possible for people to figure out that the photo is of someone with a different name.) Set the privacy settings as low as possible on these social-media pages so that anyone can access them.
Meanwhile, remove any details from your own social-media pages and blogs that connect you to the old misstep. Employers or acquaintances who stumble upon the misstep likely will conclude that you weren’t the one who was involved. This technique can be effective as long as the troubling information mentions only your name and perhaps your hometown but does not include a photo of you or mention something that clearly establishes that it was you.
Real-life example: A very successful Wall Street banker appeared in a tasteless low-budget movie many decades ago. To hide this fact, he created social-media pages for an imaginary man in Cincinnati who shared his name and had this fake man brag about an interest in porn and the movie role. If people watch this old movie, they might recognize the banker, but if they just stumble across a cast list and do some digging online, they might conclude it is someone else.
HIDE YOUR SPENDING
Your spending is being watched. Retailers sell information about what you buy to data-tracking companies, which in turn sell reports about your purchasing history and habits. Insurance companies might use the information to check whether you have healthy habits—and raise your premiums or deny coverage if you don’t. An employer might use it to keep tabs on your behavior. Most people consider this a serious invasion of privacy.
What to do: Wherever you shop, pay in cash or with prepaid gift cards, which can be purchased anonymously at many major retail, supermarket and pharmacy chains. Some of these prepaid cards are good only with a specific retail or restaurant chain or a Web site such as Amazon.com, while others, such as those issued by Visa, MasterCard and American Express, are good wherever debit cards are accepted.
HIDE YOUR LOCATION
In TV shows such as NCIS and movies such as the Bourne films, bad guys—and good guys—often are tracked down through their cell phones.
This is possible and common in real life, too. Law-enforcement agencies and even high-tech criminals increasingly have the ability to track people using their cell phones. Cell towers keep track of where we are, and many smartphone apps do so, too. They even can track phones that are turned off.
What to do: Use a very inexpensive so-called “burner” phone and prepaid cell-phone service. The phones cost as little as $15. These can be obtained without a contract—and even without a requirement that you provide your name and Social Security number. That makes it harder for anyone to track you, especially if you pay with cash. These phones can be bought at retail chains such as Target and Walmart along with prepaid talk “minutes.”
If you are willing to pay for even greater cellular privacy, dispose of your burner phone and purchase a new one each time you use it to speak to a friend or relative, as in the TV shows and movies. Otherwise someone tracking the friend’s or relative’s phone records might figure out that the prepaid phone belongs to you and use it to track you.
HIDE YOUR ONLINE ACTIVITIES
The things you do on the Internet reveal more about you than you might realize. If a con man learns what topics you research online, he could pretend to have similar interests to get close to you. If he learns what clubs you belong to, he can check when those clubs meet to determine where to bump into you…or when your home might be vacant and easier to rob.
What to do: Stop reporting details about your life online. Do not post anything on social-media pages or blogs that you wouldn’t feel comfortable putting on a billboard. Ask family members and friends to not include your name or photo on their pages, either.
Consider falsifying your hometown on your social-media pages and/or blog. Once someone has your name and hometown, it’s usually fairly easy for him to find your phone number, address and much more through a site such as ZabaSearch.com.
If you wish to keep certain Internet activity truly private, buy a low-end laptop or tablet for only this purpose and connect to the Internet using public Wi-Fi, not your home network. Do not save personal files on this device…do not access your e-mail with it…and never access your home Internet service with it or enter your name into it for any reason. If you visit a Web site that requires you to register, use a fake name.
Also: Never include private information in e-mails. E-mail messages are never 100% secure, and you never can be certain that they are truly gone after you delete them. There are “private e-mail” services that claim to keep e-mail messages secure, but they’re often not as secure as they claim and these services frequently go out of business—taking clients’ e-mail addresses and old messages with them. Besides, even if you use the world’s most secure e-mail service, there is no guarantee that the recipients of your e-mail messages will keep your e-mails secure. Secure texting apps such as Wickr provide additional security for text messages, but even with these, texts aren’t 100% secure.
HOW TO TOTALLY DISAPPEAR
If you wish to truly disappear, perhaps to evade a dangerous person who is trying to find you…
Before relocating, leave a false trail leading somewhere you have no intention of hiding. Use your computer to search for information about a city where you have a trusted friend. Apply to rent an apartment in this city (don’t actually rent one), and open a bank account there. Give the bank your current mailing address, which you will soon leave. Deposit a few hundred dollars in this account, then take the debit card that the bank gives you and give it to a friend with instructions to use it to make occasional small purchases. Close the account when these funds are depleted. If someone skilled at finding people is tracking you, he/she will try to access your credit report and your computer’s search history for clues about where you went. If you feed him fake clues, you could keep him busy looking in the wrong place. (The friend should not be in any danger, because this searcher is looking for someone who looks like you.)
Set up a shell company. For less than $1,000, you can set up a company that cannot easily be connected to you. This company can pay your bills and rent you an apartment. Speak with a CPA or tax attorney about the potential tax consequences of forming a business.
Helpful: Wyoming Corporate Services, Inc., and Companies Incorporated are two services that set up shell companies.
Warn friends and family members not to give away your location. Professional pursuers who may be looking for you know how to trick your loved ones into divulging your whereabouts.
Corrupt the information that utility companies have on file for you. People who find people for a living sometimes do so by gaining access (illegally) to utility-company records. Visit your utility’s Web site or call to “correct” your name to something slightly inaccurate—replace your first name with your middle name, for example, or adjust your last name slightly.
Use Internet message boards to communicate with friends and family. Plant a coded message on a specific site when you need to get in touch.
Example: You might tell your most trusted family member to place an ad for a 1999 gold Chevy Silverado on the Kansas City Craigslist site when this person needs you to call. Set a high asking price to cut down on would-be buyers who call. The phone number listed in this ad should be for a new prepaid cell phone.