When You Need To Disappear

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Whistleblower Edward Snowden needs to disappear if he is to avoid kidnapping, assassination, extradition, or deportation to the United States. If you’re ever faced by a situation in which you need to disappear, right away, what would you do?

Perhaps someone is bent on revenge and has threatened to kill you. Perhaps you’re caught in an impossible personal or financial situation and you feel that “going underground” is the only way out. Or perhaps like Snowden, you find yourself an enemy of the state.

If you’re in such a situation, privacy may be a matter of life or death. You need to be prepared to act quickly, and when the time comes, not to hesitate.

When that time comes, first, throw away your cell phone. A cell phone may be bugged so that its location can be tracked even if the phone is switched off. When you turn it on, if the person after you has access to the cellular network – and it’s not difficult for a hacker to gain such access – your cell phone may betray your location.

Replace your existing cell phone with several anonymous prepaid cell phones, if you live in a country where you can buy one. You can still buy such phones in the United States. Buy phones with wi-fi cards so that you can connect to the Internet. Be prepared to throw away your anonymous cell phone – potentially, after just a single call. Also, purchase prepaid calling and prepaid Internet access. Pay in cash. Activate your phone at a pay phone – not with a phone connected to you in any way. Don’t give out your real phone number when you activate the phone.

Pack a suitcase with anything you need to exist for the next few months, including your new cell phone and a laptop configured with a virtual private network (VPN) like Cryptohippie. Travel as lightly as you can.

Keep several thousand dollars in cash (or equivalent local currency) on hand at home, stored in a secure location. Don’t use an ATM unless you have no alternative. Using an ATM will reveal your location to your pursuers. If you must use an ATM, withdraw as much cash as you can, and don’t use an ATM again as long as you’re on the run. From that point forward, use cash only.

Don’t use credit or debit cards, unless they’re not in your name and drawn on an account that only you know about. They can also betray your location.

Once you’ve left home, get as far away as you can. That means leaving your city, your state, and ideally, your country. You can drive your car, but an adversary with access to automatic license plate recognition networks can instantaneously match your license plate to your location. It’s better to travel by bus or train, unless you think your adversary might be waiting at the station. In public places like bus stations and railway stations, wear a hat and sunglasses. If you’re a male, don’t shave. To avoid CCTV face recognition technology, look up from the floor only to find your way to the correct bus or train. Don’t leave by air – if your stalker can gain access to flight logs, he might arrange a “welcome reception” when you land. If you’re crossing a U.S. border, keep in mind that persons walking across the border are subject to less surveillance than those crossing it in a vehicle or a plane.

Once you arrive in whatever destination you’ve decided to use as a temporary refuge, stay in hostels or small family-run hotels that accept payment in cash and don’t require proof of identity. For longer term stays, look for a resort community where strangers aren’t out of place. Ideally, find a short-term furnished rental, including utilities, offered by an individual. Pay cash in advance for the rental term to avoid a credit check. If your adversary has access to credit reports, a credit check will lead straight to your new address.

Your landlord will want to know your name and may insist on seeing government identification. If you’re in another country and have a second passport, this might be an appropriate time to use it. Again, if you pay in advance, the landlord may not be inclined to ask many questions. Keep in mind that many countries require that merchants report large cash transactions. For instance, in the United States, if the total cost of your stay exceeds $10,000/year, your landlord must file a currency transaction report (CTR) with the U.S. Treasury. A pursuer with law enforcement connections may have access to these forms and use them to track you to your new location. CTR filings are dangerous, since any law enforcement official in the United States – and many other countries – can view them.

Your adversary will also try to find you through the electronic trail you leave. To keep your prepaid cell phones anonymous, insert the battery and turn one of them on only when you’re making or expecting a call. Dial whatever sequence of numbers that applies in your country before you dial a phone number to defeat (some) caller ID (*67 in the United States).

Don’t use your cell phones to communicate with anyone you know. Use them exclusively to establish your new existence. If you must call someone whom your adversary might be watching, send that person one of your anonymous cell phones. Include a black-and-white photocopy of a printed note with instructions to wait for a call at a certain time. Using a photocopier may defeat invisible watermarks or other identifiers surreptitiously placed on documents by many printers and color copiers.

The wi-fi card in your cell phone lets you connect anonymously to the Internet anywhere you can find an unencrypted wi-fi signal. But be careful. Anyone can pinpoint your physical location and monitor your activity on an unencrypted network. In the United States, monitoring an unencrypted network is perfectly legal, because wiretapping laws don’t prohibit monitoring an electronic communications system that’s “readily available to the general public.” To protect yourself, always use a VPN to connect to the Internet.

Don’t try to catch up on e-mail or the latest postings from your friends on Facebook. Your adversary may be monitoring these accounts. Instead, set up new, anonymous, e-mail and social networking accounts. Do NOT post face pictures. Face recognition software can instantly tie you to your new account. Again, use these accounts only to establish your new existence. Your adversary will be monitoring any effort you make to contact your friends or family.

Keep your new location a secret, especially when you first go on the run. Once you manage to establish yourself somewhere, you can turn to the problem of communication with friends and family. The first consideration is trust. If you aren’t 100% sure you can trust someone after you’ve disappeared, don’t re-establish contact.

For people you know you can trust, the safest way to communicate is via first-class mail. Don’t mail anything that might be postmarked in your new location. Instead, send the letters to a mail receiving service in another state – or even another country – to be re-mailed with a local postmark. Put the mail receiving service’s return address on the letters. Avoid FedEx or other private carriers that keep a record of your shipments.

In the envelope, include instructions on how to log on to an anonymous e-mail account you’ve set up for each contact. Each contact can respond from that account to one of your anonymous e-mail addresses.

And if you don’t need to disappear? You can still lower your profile to theft, lawsuits, and the government by using common sense, remarkably simple, often inexpensive, and perfectly legal techniques. As privacy becomes more engrained in your thought process, you’ll no doubt discover other ways to limit disclosure of data that might reveal more about “you” than you’d prefer others to know.

It isn’t easy to achieve privacy in an age of global surveillance. But with diligence and forethought, you can live a lower-profile life, and reduce, if not eliminate, everyday threats to privacy and property.

The Best of Mark Nestmann

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