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Disappearing in the Digital Age

Last week’s Now I Know linked to an old story (well, Internet old — it’s from 2009) about Wired’s Evan Ratliff trying to disappear, and setting up a contest to see how difficult it would be to start a new life in the digital age.  He writes:

The idea for the contest started with a series of questions, foremost among them: How hard is it to vanish in the digital age? Long fascinated by stories of faked deaths, sudden disappearances, and cat-and-mouse games between investigators and fugitives, I signed on to write a story for Wired about people who’ve tried to end one life and start another. People fret about privacy, but what are the consequences of giving it all up, I wondered. What can investigators glean from all the digital fingerprints we leave behind? You can be anybody you want online, sure, but can you reinvent yourself in real life?

He tries to remove anything “trackable” such as cell phones, credit cards, or toll transponders and see if he can start over without anyone knowing where he is in the world.  (Remember, this was years ago before we got even more trackable.)

An online community of amateur sleuths springs up trying to find out every last speck of information about Evan Ratliff.  In compiling this information, they work to pinpoint possible routes he could have taken when he went on the run or places where he may have slipped up — digitally or in-person — and reveal his whereabouts.

I’m not going to ruin the ending — you’ll have to read the whole article or skip to the end to discover if he succeeds. (It’s worth reading the whole article, I promise.)  And it’s not exactly the same as what would happen if the average person tried to disappear and there wasn’t a bounty on their head encouraging everyone to look for them.

It’s more an interesting exercise in considering all the ways you are being tracked as you move through your day, knowing that the ways have only grown since he tried this in 2009.  On one hand, it’s a little bit comforting thinking that you are pinpointed.  Noticed.  Your existence confirmed.  On the other hand, it’s a little bit discomforting thinking that you are pinpointed.  Noticed.  Your existence tracked and analyzed, usually to sell you a product.

Probably the most interesting article I read all week, and one that I missed when it was written back in 2009.  Thanks, Now I Know!


1 a { 07.05.17 at 9:04 am }

I think he misses the point that people who want to disappear can, but people who don’t really want to disappear have a much harder time.

And you really need much more cash than a few thousand dollars.

2 Lori Lavender Luz { 07.07.17 at 5:00 pm }

I’m heading off to read. So many things in life (fire, a knife, the Internet) are both amazing tools and formidable weapons. It’s exhausting to keep trying to figure out how to keep things tool-y and not weapon-y.

3 Jivf { 07.11.17 at 9:00 am }

Very interesting – thanks for sharing. I thought it was fascinating to read about his realization that while he may have prepared financially and physically, he didn’t think of preparing emotionally and how much it bothered him to be alone on the run and constantly on alert.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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