Christine Blasey Ford knew her life would be turned upside down when she decided to identify herself as the woman accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were teenagers, so, her friends said, she deleted all of her social media accounts.
Despite those efforts, the Palo Alto University psychology professor's fears have come true since she came forward: Her lawyers say she's facing harassment and death threats.
Supporters and opponents have found pictures of her on the web and converted them into memes. And her Palo Alto home address was tweeted, forcing her to move out.
In the age of the internet, what's to keep the same thing from happening to any victim of sexual harassment or assault who decides to come forward? Can they — or anyone — completely erase their online presences to protect themselves?
"The extremely short and brutal answer is no," said Gennie Gebhart, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She does research and advocacy for issues that include consumer privacy, surveillance and security.
"The all-or-nothing approach is not generally useful," she added.
Sure, there are paid services that can "delete" you from the internet and that might work for a little while. But even if people were to spend time and money trying to erase their online presence, it could all be undone in an instant because the data brokers of the world are "constantly repopulating," Gebhart said.
Instead, Gebhart said the best that most people can do is try to get a handle on what's online, minimize the personal information that's out there and do their best to take control of it.
They could start with Google, where almost everyone else begins their online searches, and check out its removal policies. Then, delete Facebook. And opt out of sharing personal information on many other websites, one by one.
Most people don't have the time or know-how to do a good job of that, which is where services such as Reputation Defender come in.
"Do [people] know everywhere to look, do they have time, do they want to go through the cumbersome opt-out procedures?" said Rich Matta, CEO of the Redwood City company, which offers services ranging from $99 to $1,000 a year. "We currently track 73 people search and data brokers."
Yet, even he acknowledged that "it is not possible to completely scrub yourself from the internet." After all, publicly available information — such as addresses, family members' names, birth and marriage certificates, mortgages, liens and voting records — abound. That's the bread and butter of data brokers, such as Whitepages, Spokeo, Intelius and others.
In Ford's case, a friend said she "shut down her social media," but that didn't stop at least a few people from tweeting her address.
Twitter said it has suspended accounts related to Ford's "doxing," which involves the posting of personal information.
"I do definitely worry that this [case] will have a chilling effect" on other victims of sexual assault or harassment coming forward, said Leigh Honeywell, co-founder of San Francisco startup Tall Poppy, which aims to establish online-harassment protection as an employee benefit. For more than a decade, the security engineer has worked with tech companies and hundreds of individuals who have experienced online harassment, she said.
In the past year, she said, she has counseled about a dozen people, some of whom decided not to blow the whistle because of security concerns.
Build a support team
Honeywell also was a technology fellow at the ACLU and in February wrote a guide titled "Staying Safe When You Say MeToo," in which she laid out tips, including searching Google and Bing for your first and last names, separately, along with your phone number — because information about us can pop up in the most unexpected places.
She herself drew attention when she spoke out a couple of years ago about being in a relationship that involved sexual misconduct.
"The important thing, in addition to mundane digital hygiene, is having a support network ready to go," Honeywell said. "Tell them 'I'm about to go through something really difficult.' Think through who those people are in your life, and build your 'team you.' "