There's a new tool that promises to help you do just that — by essentially deleting yourself from the internet.
CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains how it works.
What is this new online tool?
Think of this as a kind of cleanse for your online life.
It's called Deseat.me, and it does one thing and one thing only — it displays a list of all the online services you've ever signed up for.
So if you had a MySpace account in the early 2000s, it'll probably show up in Deseat. If you created an avatar in Second Life, it's likely to show up as well. And of course, so will things like your Facebook or Twitter accounts.
To use Deseat.me, you first log in using a Google account. Then, once it knows your email address, it can find any accounts that have been linked in any way to that Google account.
Now, it will ask for some things which may sound creepy — it will not only ask to view your email address, but also to view your email messages and settings. Based on my experience, Deseat.me scans through your email archives to find sign-up confirmation messages from various services.
The creators of Deseat.me told the Telegraph they take user privacy seriously, and that the program runs on the user's computer, rather than Deseat.me's servers. They also say they're not storing any of your info, but you'd need to take them at their word on that.
It uses Google's OAuth security protocol — but if you're not comfortable allowing Deseat.me access to your email archives, I wouldn't authorize it.
In my case, it found 216 different accounts, most of which I had entirely forgotten about. For instance, I have an account with the now-defunct social network called Pownce, and an account on something called Microsoft HealthVault that I signed up for in 2007.
So once you have this list of online services and accounts, Deseat.me will — wherever possible — show you a direct link to remove those accounts.
Why is keeping unused accounts risky?
There are a number of reasons, according to Anatoliy Gruzd, a professor at Ryerson University and the Canada research chair in social media data stewardship.
He said we've seen many recent examples of online services being hacked — and there are some dangerous ways hackers can use the information they gather.
- More than 412 million adult-website credentials hacked
- Zuckerberg hack a cautionary tale about password security
"For example, they can start contacting your old friends or old contacts on those services on your behalf, pretending to be you," Gruzd said.
He also pointed out online services are constantly being bought and sold. So if you have an old, unused account on a website that has been sold to a new owner, you might not ever know who owns your personal data — or how it will be used.
How else can I shut down my accounts?
Some apps and services allow you to sign up without creating a new login. Instead, you can sign in using your existing Facebook, Twitter or Google account. This is what's called "social login." You've probably seen this if a website or app has invited you to "Log in with Facebook."
The good news is that each of those sites — Google, Facebook and Twitter — can show you a list of third-party sites and services you've authorized to use your account. These lists are all in different places, depending on the social network — you can find Google's here, Facebook's here and Twitter's here.
When I checked mine, I found dozens of services I no longer use — services I tried once then forgot about.
Another really great resource is a site called JustDelete.me. It's a huge list of online services and direct links to the page you need to visit to shut down your account. What's more, each service has been rated on a scale from "easy" to "impossible" in terms of how difficult it is to close your account — because not every service makes it easy to leave.
Why is it often difficult to close an account?
Gruzd said that's because the personal information you share with them has real value in the marketplace.
"You can sell data. There's a big data market out there with data resellers — a huge advertising market as well," he said.
"I think as internet users, we need to demand more transparency from online services [about] how our data is being used and what are our options in terms of completely deleting those accounts."
The old saying is true — if you're not paying for something, you're not the customer: you're the product and are being sold. Or more specifically, your personal data is the product being sold.
What should I do before shutting an account?
Large-scale hacks and data breaches are on the rise, so it's worth spending the time to remove possible attack vectors.
But before you shut down an account, it's worth looking for an export or backup option, so you can save a copy of your personal data before you shut down the account.
So it's a good idea to spend a few minutes looking at the third-party apps you've authorized through Twitter, Facebook or Google and close down the ones you're not using anymore.
It's good practice from both a security and a privacy perspective, since these accounts are a liability — and might be a interesting cyber-trip down memory lane.