How to Disappear (almost) Completely: a practical guide

Maybe you've seen Into the Wild, or (gasp) have actually read it. It's the true story of an ordinary person who, one day, decided to abandon society, pack some rice and a rifle into a bag and head off into the wilderness never to return. It's the sort of drastic move you rarely hear about in our modern life. But in next week's final installment of How to Disappear, we'll meet some people who've literally done just that: gone "off the grid." For now, though, let's take a (tongue-in-cheek) look at how you can take some first steps toward undoing the digital ties that bind, and get a little closer to the exit door.

How to leave social media

1. Think about why you want to leave social media

  • Is it because you're concerned that the NSA, your employer and prospective partners all have access to those pictures of you drunkenly jackknifed over the couch with your bare ass hanging out?

  • Perhaps you're spending too much time obsessing over (read: cyber-stalking) the minutiae of other people's lives?

  • Or maybe it's time that you left all of the "drama" behind that these networks can generate?

2. Prepare for your departure

  • If people have pictures of you online that you're not a fan of, then approach them directly and ask to delete them. If you merely "deactivate" your account, then those pictures won't be removed, since you don't control them.

  • You should also tell your immediate social circle so they know to make an effort to invite you to parties in other ways -- like email or text message. If you find your invite count dropping as a consequence, then you know these people can't make the effort, and should probably be avoided.

3. Decide if you want a chance to change your mind

  • If you're looking to get off Facebook, but want the option to go back every now and again to go through your old photos, then you'll want to "deactivate" your account.

  • You can do this by accessing your settings menu and selecting "Deactivate your Account."

  • Be warned that Facebook will then try to emotionally blackmail you to stay by saying that your friends will miss you. The service hasn't asked these people, however, and is just presuming on their behalf.

  • When you go, your friends will still be able to read sent messages, invite you to groups or tag you in photos, but none of those notifications will reach you.

  • If you want to leave forever, then navigate to a hidden section in the help menu (here) in order to tell Mark Zuckerberg you're dumping him for good.

  • Once you've requested that your account be "deleted," it'll be bluntly cleaved from the company's servers, including your wall posts and everything else.

How to dump your online retailer

1. Think about what you'll do when you've disconnected from online shopping

  • When you've left your online retailer, you'll have to go to brick-and-mortar outfits to do your shopping.

  • You may be used to doing this for groceries, but may have difficulty finding places to buy books, DVDs, games, electrical items, furniture and clothes.

  • Try to work out where you're likely to go, and if possible, seek out independent or mom-and-pop retailers, as they are less likely to have tracking algorithms and large databases analyzing customer activity.

2. Leave your online retailer

  • In the case of Amazon, in order to leave, you need to head over to the "Contact Us" page, select "Prime and More," and then in the second drop-down menu, select "Close My Account."

  • Once you've done this, you'll be given three options: Give the company your phone number so that a customer sales representative can talk to you, email them or engage in a live web chat.

How to leave your search engine

1. Prepare for your departure

  • Log into your Google or Bing search history.

  • Google, for instance, keeps a detailed record of whatever you've typed into its innocuous search bar. That's everything, from those embarrassing questions you're too afraid to ask your parents to the most depraved of adult content.

  • To find all of this, simply enter your settings menu, either by clicking the settings gear on Bing's homepage or going to Google's My Search History page.

2. Decide if you can live without the services that depend on this information

  • Google, for instance, uses your search data to help improve your search results. This also means that your YouTube preferences can be stored, and will even offer up contextual information from Google Now.

  • Think carefully before you do this, though, as cutting out your search history means you'll lose those handy flight and traffic alerts that you can get from your Android handset.

3. Edit out the information you don't want anyone to see

  • If you're in Europe, then there is at least some good news: You can take advantage of the "Right to be forgotten" ruling that enables you to request that incriminating old documents about you are taken off the internet.

  • Otherwise, you can selectively edit what specific information you want your search provider to see and store. Or you can opt out of your web history completely.

How to secure more 'private' email

1. Decide on a new email provider

  • If you feel that you can't trust Google or any other free email service with your most private of communications, then it's time to do your research.

  • There are several alternatives available, and a few that we'd suggest: MyKolab, based in Switzerland; CounterMail, based in Sweden; and Neomailbox, which moved its servers to Switzerland to demonstrate its commitment to privacy last summer.

2. Pay for a new, private and secure service.

  • Unfortunately, secure email services will charge you, since they can't generate revenue from selling ads by sifting through your inbox looking for keywords.

  • This means that you'll be paying between $5 and $15 per month, although there are big discounts available if you sign up for secure email one year at a time.

3. Realize that it's all pointless

  • Benjamin Mako Hill, who has run his own private email server for the last decade and a half, decided to find out how many of his emails were stored by Google during email exchanges to the company's servers. Even though he wasn't a Gmail user himself, he discovered Google had nearly half of all the emails that he had sent.

  • Considering the effort and expense that it takes to move your information away from Google, you need to ask yourself one very important question: If Google's going to end up with all my data anyway, then why bother hiding it?

[Illustrations: Brandon Hanvey for Engadget]