Vanishing In a Digital Age: Lessons From Evan Ratliff

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by Bill Rounds: Smartphone
Pics: Stealing More Than Souls



Like many privacy-minded
individuals, I got a kick out of Wired
Magazine editor Evan Ratliff
‘s experiment to Vanish for
30 days. Even though it was a contest and there were many things
that he did intentionally to leave some kind of a trail behind,
much like what happens to many people who try to vanish, what he
did that worked and what he did that didn’t work are very illuminating
to those who really want to vanish without leaving a trace. Evan
was unfortunately
a few days shy of his 30 day-goal. Even more unfortunate
is the idea that has perpetuated since the contest, one that many
people have mentioned to me since the contest was over, that you
simply cannot vanish and maintain a presence on the internet. This
is not entirely true. I have addressed in previous articles almost
every tool and technique that would have helped a person avoid the
actual mistakes Evan made and which would have kept Evan from being
discovered for the entire 30 days or even for 30 years. Many more
of those tools and techniques are available in the book How
to Vanish, Legally Protecting Personal and Financial Privacy

to create a complete strategy for personal privacy. Here are the
things that can be learned from the Vanish contest to make a vanishing
act last longer than 30 days.

Allocated To Finding You

Evan Ratliff
publicized his Vanish contest to his readers. Doing this brought
lots of attention and got people to allocate their time and talents
to the search, a lot of people. The more resources allocated to
finding you, the harder it will be to vanish, but it is still possible
(think bin Laden).

Don’t make
your intention to vanish without a trace known to thousands of people.
Okay. It was a contest rather than a true attempt to vanish, so
Evan could not have followed this piece of advice, but you can.
Being discreet
about vanishing
keeps resources from being allocated to search
for you. If your intention is to vanish because of serious criminal
behavior, you will hopefully have a very difficult time vanishing
because lots of powerful government and other resources will be
deployed in your search. If you are vanishing for honest reasons,
the same level of resources will probably not be allocated to locating
you and you will find it easier to vanish.

Profiling of Everyday Habits

instead of credit cards was an excellent method of maintaining
his privacy in the short term. Evan allowed others to access his
bank account statements, credit card statements, email and other
personally revealing information, much like the access a private
would have if they were following you. This kind
of access would have been significantly limited if his bank accounts
were in countries which have strong
bank privacy laws
. Had he not used cash, his trail would have
been completely exposed within hours. His weakness was that Evan
has not practiced privacy principles of anonymous transactions his
entire life. From his historical spending habits and other readily
available personal information, followers were able to compile a
profile which helped searchers discover Evan’s alias Facebook and
Twitter accounts, which kept the trail of his general whereabouts
warm, and eventually led them to the gluten free pizza place, Naked
, in New Orleans where he was finally found (his gluten
allergy was one of those bits of personal information that was a
key piece of evidence to find him).

If you continually
practice good privacy habits like anonymous
web surfing
, using cash in transactions, avoiding
consumer databases
, not
receiving mail
at your residence, and others, your personal
profile will be very difficult to piece together in any way that
might be incriminating. The longer you have been following good
privacy principles to partially vanish, the easier it will be for
you to completely vanish.

Media Missteps

Evan Ratliff
created new social media profiles using some real pictures of himself
and used those to leave clues about his whereabouts. Even though
his profiles were sometimes “secure," he still added contacts
that were people and groups that were relative strangers to him.
Followers of Evan contacted many of those casual acquaintances after
suspecting that the profile might have belonged to Evan (the fact
that there was such tight security on the accounts actually raised
suspicion). They also created their own fake profiles to try and
get Evan to connect with them through the social media sites. Those
acquaintances, and the fake connections produced information that
led to his “capture.”

As I have mentioned
before, social media can be useful if used wisely. Having the desired
on your account is a good start. The critical part
that Evan did not do, in part because he wanted to make the contest
fair, was to screen social media connections, allowing only people
that you trust sufficiently with the information that you give them
to become part of his network. Only connect with people if you are
sure that you know
who is behind the profile

Web Surfing

Evan did, on
occasion, use free anonymizing
like Tor, to try and hide his actual physical location.
He also used wireless internet regularly. These were excellent steps
which did in fact conceal his location. He did not use it enough.
Even though his use of proxy servers did disguise his actual location,
he did not always use it while using his fake social media accounts,
which some people discovered belonged to him. This allowed his followers
to narrow his location to one metropolitan city and eventually to
his gluten-free meal location.

Tor is an excellent
free tool to hide your IP address and was very effective for Evan.
Other anonymous
web surfing
tools can be easier
to use
and offer more privacy. The more you use these tools,
the better you will become at operating anonymously and the more
difficult it will be to gather your personal information. Even if
there are websites that you would be expected to visit, which a
good investigation would be monitoring to see if they can figure
out which IP address is yours, anonymous web surfing will probably
keep them from discovering that you are even visiting those sites,
let alone your actual location.


Evan Ratliff’s
contest was a lot of fun to follow. He did a good job at vanishing
for almost 30 days, even with his intentional clues. The conclusion
that many people have drawn from the contest, however, is wrong.
If you follow good privacy practices discussed on this website,
you can vanish in a digital age and still maintain a web presence.
In fact, this web presence allows you to save
a lot on taxes
if you are able to domicile yourself in one of
the tax-free states, even if you spend all of your time on the road
like Evan.

with permission from How to

31, 2010

Rounds, J.D. is a California attorney. He holds a degree in Accounting
from the University of Utah and a law degree from California
Western School of Law
. He practices civil litigation, domestic
and foreign business entity formation and transactions, criminal
defense and privacy law. He is a strong advocate of personal and
financial freedom and civil liberties. This is merely one article
of 73 by Bill
Rounds J.D.

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