By Louise Ure
Back in August I got an email from an old friend, Jake Young, the Managing Editor at WIRED magazine. “I generally avoid spamming my friends with WIRED stories, but this one – about how to ditch your current life and start over – seemed perfect for you.”
He was right.
In that article, WIRED writer Evan Ratliff chronicles the attempt by Matthew Alan Sheppard to fake a suicide and disappear. And writing the story led him to wonder just how difficult it would be for someone to drop out of their current life and disappear completely in this digital age.
“Starting over, however, is not as simple as it used to be. Digital information collection, location-aware technology, and post-9/11 security measures have radically changed the equation for both fugitives and pursuers. Yesteryear’s Day of the Jackal-like methods for adopting a new identity — peruse a graveyard, pick out a name, obtain a birth certificate — have given way to online markets for social security numbers and Photoshop forgeries. Escapees can set up new addresses online, disguise their communications through anonymous email, and hide behind prepaid phones.
In other ways, however, the advantage has tipped in favor of investigators. Where once you could move a few states over, adopt a new name, and live on with minimal risk, today your trail is littered with digital bread crumbs dropped by GPS-enabled cell phones, electronic bank transactions, IP addresses, airline ID checks, and, increasingly, the clues you voluntarily leave behind on social networking sites. It’s almost easier to steal an identity today than to shed your own. Investigators can utilize crosslinked government and private databases, easy public distribution of information via the Internet and television, and data tucked away in corporate files to track you without leaving their desks. Even the most clever disappearing act is easily undone. One poorly considered email or oversharing tweet and there will be a knock at your door. As missing-person investigators like to say, they can make a thousand mistakes. You only have to make one.”
He decided to find out for himself and on August 13, 2009, Evan Ratliff disappeared.
Although he had an emergency link to his parents and his girlfriend, no one, not even his boss at WIRED who had organized the hunt, knew what his name would be or where he would go. His goal was to remain undiscovered for thirty days. If someone tracked him down they were to approach him and use the word “fluke” and take his picture. The prize money for the discovery was $5000, much of it coming from Evan’s own pocket.
The “hunters” – some professional missing-persons trackers and some high-tech junkies – were given lots of personal information to aide in their pursuit, just like the police or a regular PI would discover in looking for a missing person. In Evan’s case they knew his middle name, his credit card and telephone numbers, and his email and Twitter accounts, along with the fact that his diet was gluten-free and he was a rabid soccer fan.
Here’s the story of his run.
Evan’s accounting of the time-consuming, attention-requiring, ultimately lonely life of the runaway is an incredible read. Traveling under the name James Gatz (the name that Jay Gatsby drops to start over in The Great Gatsby), he was far more wiley and technologically savvy than I would ever know how to be, using online cut-outs and identity concealing apps, hitching rides, making up friends, and making it through several close encounters with nothing more than sheer bravado. I’m not sure I would have been as successful, although I think I would have done better in the disguise department than he did.
But it got me thinking: could I disappear? If I needed my own version of Witness Protection or just wanted to drop out and get away from sixty years* of being Louise Ure, could I do it?
Ratliff says to go someplace you’ve been before so that you at least have a cursory overview of the city and its transportation system. That doesn’t sound right to me; I think I’d have to go places I’d never been before otherwise I’d likely run into old friends on the street or haunt my old favorite restaurants. I guess that means you’d be looking for me in the mid-West.
I’d have to give up smoking; there are too few smokers, especially of my brand, to not be obvious.
What else would give me away? My book buying habits? My tendency to visit liberal blogs? My love of Golden Retrievers? My absolute inability to not check in with my family.
What about you, ‘Rati? What one “trick” would you be sure to use? What would catch you up in the end? And have you ever want to just disappear?
* BTW, I’m not really sixty yet. I always add a few years just so I can get used to saying it by the time the real age rolls around. And in the meantime I can bask in those “Gosh you look good for your age!” comments.