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Shedding Your Identity In the Digital Age 138

Posted by kdawson
from the under-the-radar-sonar-and-lidar dept.
newscloud writes "Writer Evan Ratliff tells how he managed to hide from crowdsourced searchers for 27 days. The first person to find him and photograph him would claim a $5,000 prize. In addition to hiding out as a roadie with indy band 'The Hermit Thrushes' for a week, Ratliff donned a variety of increasingly impressive disguises. It's an interesting read on how to disappear in the digital age: 'August 13, 6:40 PM: I'm driving East out of San Francisco on I-80, fleeing my life under the cover of dusk. Having come to the interstate by a circuitous route, full of quick turns and double backs, I'm reasonably sure that no one is following me. I keep checking the rearview mirror anyway. From this point on, there's no such thing as sure. Being too sure will get me caught. About 25 minutes later, as the California Department of Transportation database will record, my green 1999 Honda Civic, California plates 4MUN509, passes through the tollbooth on the far side of the Carquinez Bridge, setting off the FasTrak toll device, and continues east toward Lake Tahoe. What the digital trail will not reflect is that a few miles past the bridge I pull off the road, detach the FasTrak, and stuff it into the duffle bag in my trunk, where its signal can't be detected. There will be no digital record that at 4 AM I hit Primm, Nevada, a sad little gambling town about 40 minutes from Vegas, where $15 cash gets me a room with a view of a gravel pile...' Spoiler alert: We previously discussed the denouement of the contest."
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Shedding Your Identity In the Digital Age

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  • by caferace (442) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @12:15AM (#30222712) Homepage
    ... (and I did RTFA and the ones before) that getting offline (both 'net and financially) would be a wise thing. Seems like most people get tripped up by that, out of curiosity, cash troubles and loneliness.

  • You must remember (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Whiteox (919863) <[htcstech] [at] []> on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @12:23AM (#30222758) Journal

    The point is that Ratliff still used the net incognito, which was important in this comp. I suggested to Wired that this be a yearly event, much like Cannonball. This first one attracted a lot of interest and made use of social websites as a tool. Fascinating sociology.
    He could've after all, hid in his mum's basement.

  • Re:You must remember (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Shadow of Eternity (795165) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @12:34AM (#30222832)

    i think that bears repeating, really the only reason he was found is because he pretty much did the digital equivalent of walking around with a neon sign on his head.

    The average person can dissapear quite effectively from pretty much anyone except the govt or groups with similar power.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @12:48AM (#30222882)

    Actually a number of fugitives do manage do to it for up to 30 years in some cases. It does involve dropping contact with your fomer life, forging a new identity and the like. Depending on how far you want to go move assets to cash or diamonds or some other portable light weight material (gold is far to heavy). Then be sure you are a long way away, and off the beaten path i.e. a small town. Keep a low profile, drive so as to avoid attracting attention, don't use electronic media. etc. Living like a hermit with minimal human contact also helps. Spy agencies do provide good training on this with their deep cover agents. (In this case its government vs government).

  • Re:You must remember (Score:4, Interesting)

    by JWSmythe (446288) <jwsmythe@jwsmyt h e . com> on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @01:04AM (#30222964) Homepage Journal

        Yup. It's pretty easy to disappear. Don't go out where you'll be seen. Give traces where you aren't.

        You know, it's not very hard to send a trusted friend your credit card and cell phone, and tell him "Use the card every few days to pull out $40, and deposit the cash once a month at a different branch.. Call your girlfriend/house/friend from my cell every few days just to chat."

        Now go camp out at another friends place, where you won't be expected. It's really not that hard to disappear for a month at a friends house. TV, internet connection, and they bring you food and other necessities that you pay them for in cash.

        If the heat is on, hoof it, catch the first morning city bus to a used car dealership. Buy a car with cash, and drive on the temp tag for a month. The more common the car, the better. Buy gas and food with cash. Go across the Canadian border in an obscure location (there are plenty of them). Trade the car to a sea going fisherman for passage to somewhere else. Greenland ... Iceland ... Europe. If you're slick about it, you can be sitting in Germany, drinking down good German beer, and laughing about the fact that they're still checking for you in Los Angeles, where you bought the car, or Chicago where your friend is using your credit card and cell phone.

        Pick up day labor jobs. Maybe the fishermen will let you stay on board for a month in exchange for a cot to sleep on, and food to eat.

        Is email really that important? Read it on your own server somewhere with pine over an SSH connection 4 steps away in distant lands. (i.e., sitting in Germany, shell into Russia, to Canada, and then to your box. Keep the neon signs saying "I'm here" flying in all the wrong places.

        And no, you wouldn't guess where I'm sitting right now. :)

  • Read TFA... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by downhole (831621) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @01:24AM (#30223054) Homepage Journal

    I read the article in the paper version already. IMHO, he was found mostly because he insisted on "flirting" with the people looking for him and his previous identity.

    Also IMHO, it's entirely possible to really disappear, even from a serious Government search, BUT in order to do so, you must be willing to truly forget about every single aspect of your previous life, forever. You have to be dead to every person you ever knew before the disappearance, and you have to forget about every hobby you ever had and every job skill and qualification you ever had. Hope you don't have any identifying medical conditions, tattoos, or disabilities either. You'll have to build up a completely new version of all of those things. And being able to put together a nice pile of cash (at least $1k, preferably closer to $10k) sure helps. Very few people have the discipline, will, and perhaps sheer insanity to actually carry this out, probably only a handful of Government spies/agents and a few of the most dedicated criminals around... I know I probably couldn't.

    And if you're really in that much trouble, it's probably easier to just move to a non-extradition country and live there as yourself.

  • by AHuxley (892839) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @01:37AM (#30223102) Homepage Journal
    Yes very true, cash helps.
    So many have family, lovers. Thats the key. the feds just sit back and wait. Sooner of later love conquers the best made plans.
    Its also getting hard in places like Australia.
    Federal agencies talk to each other and you need 100 points of ID for most things that make life 'ok'. []
    After [] I would expect many parts of the world are more carful with new applications.
    Most important too is to cut all web history. If your 'old' computer is found and they have your viewing history, that blog visit or new log in could be vital. Log all the sites you had an interest in and wait for common IP's.
    Keep all internet usage in your new home bland and fit in with your new life.
    Depending on your contacts and abilities you could start a few front companies and pass cash/diamonds along.
    That would need travel to set up accounts and with face recognition, thats getting to be hard.
    After making a company the option of buying a real third/second world docs opens up.
    Always good for escape with real papers.
  • Re:You must remember (Score:5, Interesting)

    by plover (150551) * on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @01:53AM (#30223168) Homepage Journal

    Most people will get
    lazy or lonely and slack off on this, and that's when they get found.

    Yep. According to TFA, he overheard some searchers looking for him at the soccer game. And he was ultimately undone by his uncommon need for gluten free foods. Both of those were ties to his "old life". (Not that he could give up having celiac disease.)

    The other trick is: don't look back. He gave up instantly on people who could and would have helped (girlfriend, family) but not on the dedicated searchers. He seemed to have a need to keep track of the people tracking him, and he certainly got sloppy with tor. That might have been necessary for the "interesting story" aspect of this, but he could have gotten all the emails and facebook stuff after the fact from his editor. As it was, it was this aspect of his paranoia that led to his failure.

    I did like that he was somewhat clever enough to use a "hard-to-google" alias (but not impossible: googling for "gatz -gatsby -fitzgerald" would remove much of the noise.) I'm envious of a friend (last name Smith) having a name that is completely invisible on line. If you want to search for him, you have to know more about him than just his name.

  • Re:Read TFA... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Mashiki (184564) <mashiki@gmail. c o m> on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @03:07AM (#30223426) Homepage

    This is mostly true, we make people disappear all the time. As much as people think these programs are poor, and useless it's called the witness protection program. And those people who go in, go away forever. Occasionally someone does bump into someone they knew from +1000 mi away, but it doesn't happen very often. Sure the world is a small place, but it's not as small as most people don't think that you can't lose yourself forever if you really want to.

    The first step is to kill all existing traces of your existence. House/car/lines of credit. Everything goes to cash. Anything you own, goes to cash. All bills are double laundered from the proceeds. You liquidate everything, anything you can't sell is destroyed. Everything you use in travel/spending expenses is paid for in cash, you keep no receipts and refuse all receipts. You never travel from the closest airports, you also bunny hop through several dozen different terminals if you're using plane travel or trains. All rentals are disposable to another drop off point.

    The individuals who run the WPP's are very good at what they do for a reason.

  • by dilvish_the_damned (167205) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @03:08AM (#30223438) Journal

    Only a few points of ID can get you started, and if you do it right you can use exactly one false document as a seed for the rest "authentic but false" documents. It takes time and a lot of hard work. It really has to be worth it to forget about your past. In this case only a fool would succumb to issues like past loves.


  • Re:three words... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by BrokenHalo (565198) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @03:14AM (#30223462)
    Osama Bin Laden could easily have been dead for years. However, he was more useful alive to those pushing for military action, so it's unlikely that anyone would have admitted his demise.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @04:43AM (#30223772)

    There's a difference between a tiny town and a small-ish town. I'd guess that it falls somewhere around a population of 7,500, adjusted by maybe 2,500 depending on whether there's a mobile work population (i.e. railroads, labor-intensive farming, a college, or a factory). Less than that and news travels instantly; more than that, and there is room to vanish, especially if the person is either white and conservative-looking or Hispanic and willing to work a shit job and live in the slums -- seriously, even crap-hill one-elevator towns have their dirtier sides. It's a damn lousy place to hide for someone black or asian -- sorry, but too many of the residents didn't go to college and don't go to a real town often enough to get over face shock, and even if there's a neighborhood that caters to them, our fantasy fellow on the run is right back into tiny-town territory if they try to settle in there.

    Anyway, to look at how someone would vanish themselves in a small town, we could start start with housing and a job. People are more willing to house roommates/lessees on little more than a handshake and the promise of steady rent payments in small towns, and their employers are less likely to do comprehensive background checks, because "nothing bad ever happens there." Thanks partly to sampling, it's entirely possible that they're right -- nothing bad HAS happened there since old lady Anderson shot her cheating husband 13 years ago. Necessities would be easy to come by; while outright dumpster-diving wouldn't be an option to cut bills (townies WOULD freak), adequate furnishings and suitable clothing (remember, small town) would pop up at garage sales, church fundraisers, and community auctions, since there aren't enough people around to make Craigslist a worthwhile effort. A smart rummager could walk out with a new wardrobe (plus a slightly coffee-stained sofa) for the cost of a nice dinner in town. Also, cheap crappy cars abound, so wheels would NOT be a problem. Plus, the local cops and clerks in such places are 90% local "good kids" and football stars who didn't want to spend 40 years at the bumper factory. They're more interested in keeping drunks off the streets and their depressingly tiny budgets balanced than in looking into an even slightly plausible background for some worker. A small town with a community college could also be a plus; NOBODY bats an eye at ordinary-Joe strangers in those places; they just assume "student" or "drop-out" and leave it at that. Plus, a college implies a library, perhaps with some half-decent research databases, which is a good thing as long as our avoidant soul is bright enough NOT to search for info on their old identity or acquaintances that way. Also, a small college suggests that there should be some sporting/gym facilities beyond just a basketball hoop and a baseball field, which aren't guaranteed in tiny towns.

    Presuming that the person had a non-trivial wad of cash to begin their sojourn, it would probably be easier, safer, and cheaper to maintain something like a decent lifestyle on the run in a podunk town than it would be in a city. The paychecks would suck, but a very modest amount of big-city savings would buy some mild creature comforts for a LONG time. They could get the Internet for entertainment, so long as they dumped their old browsing habits and particularly avoided talking politics or spending money online. Whoever's on their tail -- PI, cop, or interested amateur -- could be assumed to be watching for someone to reach out for their favorite flavor of tea, shoes, or porn under an assumed identity, and a sudden request for a special blend of Pekot to be sent to Bucktooth, Nebraska, would be a dead giveaway. A day trip to a real town would be the best way to get something unique, or better yet, they could just learn to live with the generic Wal-Mart crap -- it's good enough for Joe Kettleson across the street. Speaking of the Joneses, a little community involvement wouldn't hurt; they could join a church or volunteer for something, and show

  • Re:Read TFA... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Antique Geekmeister (740220) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @04:49AM (#30223812)

    No, I'm afraid that Witness Protection is usually _temporary_. And the witnesses are not protected from government tracking: too much paperwork is shared with too many branches to rely on protection from other government agencies. Witness Protection is too expensive and too cumbersome for a bureaucracy, whether federal or state, to properly support indefinitely.

    I can easily believe that the people who run the federal program are competent, but they don't live forever. Administrations change, records are leaked, and it's an expensive program: I'd be amazed if there are more than a dozen people who've been in it for more than 10 years.

  • by VShael (62735) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @05:54AM (#30224148) Journal

    Where's Osama?
    Hiding seems to be working for him

    An Egyptian newspaper ran his obituary a while back. I don't know how credible the newspaper is though.

    And Benazir Bhutto, while being interviewed on the BBC by Sir David Frost (yeah, that Frost. Of the Frost v Nixon fame) mentioned in passing that Bin Laden was dead. (This was Nov 2nd, 2007, shortly before she was killed by the way.)

    Frost didn't say anything, didn't even acknowledge it (which might lead some to believe he already knew this) and the interview carried on as normal.

    Later, the BBC transcript of the interview left out the references to Bin Ladens death.

    When numerous complaints were sent to the BBC from viewers who saw the interview live, the BBC didn't deny that the section had been edited from the interview. They simply claimed there was nothing nefarious about it, and that interviews were frequently trimmed for length. They didn't comment at all, about the Bin Laden aspect of it.

    True story. Video is online, google has multiple copies, etc...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @06:06AM (#30224212)

    You claim that it's hard to hide but the FBI's statistics show that about 20% of the MURDERERS got away with it in 2008. Sure, they solve a "Cold Case" from time to time but you probably won't get caught if you can survive the "First 48".

    The about 20% comes from the FBI's claim that there were 16,272 murders and 12,955 arrests in 2008. []

  • by LordAndrewSama (1216602) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @08:34AM (#30224860)
    posting what sounds like a lot of experience of being on the run is also not advisable ;)
  • Re:You must remember (Score:5, Interesting)

    by plover (150551) * on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @10:17AM (#30225552) Homepage Journal

    You know, if the police were after you, and you had a police band scanner, or some other way to see what the police were doing in their efforts to track you down, I think you wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to use it. A lot.

    Great point. And he did dive headlong into paranoia, and not without justification; the whole country WAS paid to get him! I certainly can't fault him for watching.

    But if you knew in advance that your police scanner actively reported your location every time you turned it on, you think you'd be more careful. And he was, at first. The laptop TOR setup was a brilliant idea (if poorly executed, as the hunters still used anti-tor tricks to learn his real IP.) But he stopped using tor because it was clumsy and slow (no argument here) not because it was ineffective. His real IP being traced to the New Orleans pizza shop directly contributed to his getting caught.

    If nothing else, there were several good lessons for people who want to hide from the general public while living online.
    1. Tor is somewhat effective, but you should run it from behind a NATting firewall to avoid giving away your real IP.
    2. Embrace noscript, and be sure to kill third party javascripts that report your activity, such as google analytics. It won't stop a collaborating host site from providing your IP, but it will stop the easy third party trackers that are so common. They're like drift-nets that catch everything as it flows by thousands of sites.
    3. Allow cookies to persist only as long as your session, and don't cache stuff. Private browsing would be a fast way to do the right thing (but be sure to end your session at least every single day.)
    4. Don't run flash; if you must, be sure to set it to store 0KB of data locally.
    5. Run zone alarm and keep an eye out for any unexpected outbound traffic.
    6. Stay away from facebook toys, or any of the goofy social networking crap. (It'd probably be best to avoid social networking sites altogether, as they tend to have a pretty incomplete picture of security.)
    7. Use an email cutout service. They're common enough as spam fighters, but can keep the curious from getting too close, too.
    8. Avoid sites that require registration for no real reason.
    9. Use tools such as BugMeNot to get an anonymized login for sites that require registration, or create a login that you use for only a session, no more.
    10. If you use a disposable ID or email address, DISPOSE of it after use. Register a new one with your next session.

  • Re:You must remember (Score:3, Interesting)

    by IICV (652597) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @01:42PM (#30228024)
    ... and how exactly will they send you that threat? If they can privately transmit this message to you, they can find you. If they're willing to broadcast that message, you're both going to die if you give yourself up.
  • by AHuxley (892839) on Wednesday November 25, 2009 @07:51PM (#30231910) Homepage Journal,0 []
    ... keeping a battered al Qaeda intact (if weak) is the world's best hope of funneling Islamist fanatics into one social network -- where they stand the best chance of being spotted, tracked, and contained.
    ' The alternative, destroying the terrorist group, would risk fragmenting al Qaeda into thousands of cells, and these will be much harder to follow and impossible to eradicate."

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. -- John Muir