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January 25, 2010

5

Vanishing in the digital age

by quaesitor

Have you ever wondered about disappearing? I’m not talking about Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak (although that would certainly come in handy on occasion). No, I mean disappearing like Jason Bourne: forging plausible identities, making new starts, covering old traces, laying false trails. Hiding, essentially.

Now before you start worrying, panic not – I’m not considering it at all. Plenty of things to keep me where I am!

But in idle moments, when contemplating the surveillance state (in which CCTV cameras seem to breed inside London Underground stations and one’s every digital move is now plotted by faceless geek-watchers), I’ve wondered whether it is even possible anymore. How would one go about it, if one had to? Under the Orwellian regimes of 20th Century despots, it was hard enough – id cards, passpapers, regular security police checkpoints. Think The Great Escape; or Hans Fallada’s brilliant Alone in Berlin; or the world of Le Carré’s Smiley. But now? I suppose it must be, somehow. But boy, do you have to be clever to keep ahead of the game. And rich. Like the Gene Hackman character in Enemy of the State. Which is of course ludicrous fantasy… Isn’t it…?

Evan Ratcliff (Photo: Joe Pugliese - Wired US, Nov 2009)

Which is all by way of explaining why I was so gripped by this article in the US edition of Wired from before Christmas – writer Evan Ratliff Tried to Vanish: Here’s What Happened.

After weeks of preparations, Ratcliff decided (as an experiment) to disappear completely for a month in 2009, laying down the gauntlet (through Wired) for people to use legal means to track him down. Once they had, they were to ask him, “You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Fluke, would you?” in exchange for a financial reward.

For some, finding Evan Ratcliff became an obsession – the ultimate in reality gaming. Chatrooms, twitter hashtags and even a specially created Facebook App sprang up, as people all over the place compared research, shared sightings, and generally tried to outsmart each other. Through various means, people discovered Ratcliff’s passions (bizarrely enough, he’s an avid Fulham supporter), credit card details, and even his dietary requirements. The tiniest details played their part. As the article wryly observes, they discovered everything about him – except his current location. But they were never far behind. This Zeemaps group traces his every move – it’s fun to follow while reading the article.

It’s all pretty scary. And legal.

I was particularly interested in the impact it all had on him, though. There are some pretty poignant moments:

It’s surreal, in those moments when I stop to think about it. Scores of people have studied my picture, stared into those empty eyes in the hopes of relieving me of thousands of dollars. They have stood for hours, trying to pick out my face in a crowd. They’ve come to know me like we’ve been friends for years. It’s weirdly thrilling, in a narcissistic kind of way, but also occasionally terrifying.

But as he reflects on it later:

…I’d discovered how quickly the vision of total reinvention can dissolve into its lonely, mundane reality. Whatever reason you might have for discarding your old self and the people who went with it, you’ll need more than a made-up backstory and a belt full of cash to replace them.

For weeks after the hunt ended, I still paused when introducing myself and felt a twinge of panic when I handed over my credit card. The paranoid outlook of James Donald Gatz was hard to shake. Even now, my stomach lurches when I think back to the night I got caught. “You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Fluke, would you?”

The article is definitely worth reading in full. It simply proves how digitally interconnected, dependent, and even chained, we all are in the west – and that includes even the most luddite or technophobe.

No wonder Bin Laden decided to hide out in the mountains of Pakistan. That seems to be one of the few options left if you want to really disappear.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. a
    Jan 25 2010

    Someone pointed out to me the following problem. It is even getting hard for governments. Suppose for the moment you were the UK government wanting to send an intelligence agent to a modern industrialised nation (say the US) under a false identity.

    20 years ago it was easy – you printed the passports, so you made a “genuine” fake passport. Now however, the US keeps biometric fingerprint logs of everyone arriving. If your agent has ever been to the US before, a warning could flag up “this set of fingerprints has arrived before, but last time the name was ‘Fred Bloggs’ and this time the name is ‘John Doe'”.

    So even the state can’t give fake identities easiily any more.

    Reply
  2. Jan 25 2010

    that’s a great point, which too has its positives and negatives I guess. Which leads one into the obsessional but presumably impossible realms of Ethan Hawke’s character in Gattaca

    Reply
  3. Jan 25 2010

    Very interesting! I usually start to worry when someone decide to get a canoe🙂

    Reply
  4. Jan 26 2010

    Surely the best way to disappear is to be utterly unnoticeable, unremarkable? ‘Cellophane, Mr Cellophane, should’a been my name, Mr Cellophane, cos you can look right through me, walk right by me – and never know I’m there!’

    Reply

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