It used to be that you could just pick up and start over as a new person. You could get yourself a new identity, go off the grid, or just reinvent yourself completely. Even if you've never committed a crime, there's something seductive about going missing.
But new technology and a heightened security state are already making it much harder to disappear. Already, there's a new tool being developed that could identify people at airports with 98.8 percent accuracy, based on their footsteps.
In a decade or two, it could be nearly impossible. We spoke to Frank Ahearn, author of How to Disappear, and he told us how technology is making disappearing much harder.
Top image: Screencap from Minority Report
When I ask Ahearn if it would be more difficult to disappear 10 or 20 years from now, he responds, "Oh, man. Absolutely. I mean, just look at our cellphones. What they've turned into. It's mind boggling. We can go to webcams, and see street corners."
Have you ever been to London? Every freaking store has cameras inside and out. Every building has cameras facing outside too, practically. Eventually, all these cameras will be centralized. So let's say your mate leaves the house and you're just curious, all you have to do is just click into some central database - and this will be for the public, because it's public locations - and just track somebody walking through the street. And I think that's a very realistic future.
With social networking, "people are giving up their information," says Ahearn. This includes who they went to college, who they've dated, and their realtime GPS data, thanks to smartphone apps. "There's almost like this grooming where we're going to accept that this thing in our hand will be able to be located by the services we use."
It's already harder in many ways
Right now, says Ahearn, the rise of technology is a "double-edged sword."
There's a ton of information about you on the Internet, which tends to make the job of finding people easier. "If I'm looking to find someone, I don't necessarily look for them, I look for the information that was left behind. In today's world, between social media sites and database sites like Intelius - you can even buy driver's license information in different states. There's all these available avenues."
But at the same time, you can use the internet to your advantage, by creating a lot of misinformation or "digital distortion" online, says Ahearn. You can create a fake Twitter account, and set up 2500 other fake Twitter accounts that follow that person, and then "tweet bullshit things." You can post false information like, "I'm in Chicago and the weather's fine." You can post fake info on your facebook account, and photoshop fake photos of yourself in Chicago blues bars.
Currently, with the internet, "It's not easier or harder, it's really a question of who's more devious," says Ahearn. On the internet, "just because the information is there doesn't mean it's correct or current. It's a huge problem.
Technology has allowed us to become virtual entities. I can bank online. I can fax from my laptop. I can make phone calls from my laptop. I can have a business on my laptop. Ten years ago, you needed to bank down the block and you needed to sell hot dogs or socks from your store. You don't have to do that any more. It's easy to disappear if you are savvy in social media and technology.
At the same time, social media has exacerbated an old problem: What if you're out with your new friends, in your new identity, and someone comes up to you and greets you by your old name? You've got some explaining to do.
Now, with people tagging photos on Facebook, that can become a much bigger problem. Someone can take a photo of you somewhere, and it's instantly linked to your identity and visible everywhere. Also, pictures and videos can go viral or appear across social networks with amazing speed, and you might be pictured in one of them and not know it.
Don't go outside
At the same time, there are closed circuit TV cameras everywhere, and facial recognition software is getting way better. Says Ahearn, "The minute you leave the house, there's zero privacy." Unless you stuff cotton in your mouth and your nostrils to transform your features, "you're going to be picked up. There's no doubt about that. You can't escape what's outside your home." If you walk into a casino, they know who you are immediately. "If you leave your house, I guess you have to walk looking down."
And check out the video at left - that's a record of someone going jogging. It's a demo for GeoTime, a Canadian company that is pioneering new ways to track people's movements across space and time. "It'll blow your mind how they can connect satellite and traffic images to reconstruct who caused the accident." Also, any time you cross borders or get on an airplane, you're going to go through screening. And customs people and TSA people can hold you for as long as they want, "busting your balls until you crack."
"You can't escape the cameras," says Ahearn, "but you can escape the monetary trails. You can escape the cell phone trails... The question is whether you have a phone and you choose to have your GPS activated." Instead, you can use a prepaid phone that nobody knows about, which has no GPS - you can give a homeless guy ten bucks to go into the store and buy it for you. And you can use prepaid credit cards that have no social security number attached. You could also use an offshore banking account, and create a corporation to pay your bills and buy stuff for you. You can create a corporation in another state and "use the corporation as a kind of shell... a buffer between you and the services you need."
Are there countries where it's easier to go off the grid completely? Yes, says Ahearn. There are a lot of countries down south, like Belize and Costa Rica. "Panama takes anybody with a wallet and a heartbeat." But you might not have the amenities you take for granted, like first-class medical care.
According to Ahearn, there's the "five flag theory" of freedom - you live in one country, your bank account is in another country, your business is in another country, your second passport is in another country, and you play in a fifth country. So "if something goes down in one country, it doesn't wipe you out on life. It's ultimate freedom and ultimate privacy."
Twenty years ago, says Ahearn, you possibly could go to the cemetery and "find the two-year-old kid who died, and then you go and get a birth certificate and a Social Security card." That made sense in the 1980s, because "vital statistics and Social Security didn't connect via computer. Now, you can't do it." And nowadays, if you buy a new identity from someone, you don't know what you're getting. "It could be a pedophile who's on the Megan's Law list." Or it could be someone who owes $100,000, and if you open a bank account under that person's name, the bank will automatically put a lien on the funds. Basically, getting a new identity is impossible now, "unless your cousin works for the FBI and can set up a bogus file and get you a new Social Security number."
If you absolutely had to create a new identity, the best bet is to find someone in a coma in a convalescent home, because at least you know they won't apply for credit or get a new passport. But then, you're screwed if they wake up in a couple years.
People are creatures of habit, and you have to be really careful to avoid slipping up.
"Being in the skip tracing business, I located people the stupidest ways," says Ahearn. "I just come up with a dumb idea one time and said, 'I wonder if he cancelled his magazine subscriptions.'" One person actually contacted the magazine publisher and changed his subscriptions to his new address and name. "I call it the fluke factor."
People try to spread disinformation, but often don't do a good enough job. "That's how I found people. They would disconnect their services, and they would mail-forward their services to some bullshit area. And I know this guy in Miami is not moving to Duluth. So I'm not going to even look in Duluth. So what I'm going to do is basically pull his phone records from the month before and see that he called L.A., looking for apartments in L.A."
With disinformation about where you're moving, "in order for someone to prove that it's correct or not, they have to actually physically go there or hire somebody to go there." And that's a lot more time- and labor-intensive than checking via phone or online.
Ahearn was a successful skip-tracer because he was always good at confirming information over the phone, without having to go there. One time, he called someone and claimed to be from UPS with a package, wanting to check the address. He deliberately got the address wrong, "and if they corrected me, I knew I had them, because they wanted it to go to the correct address instead of hanging up on me."
A private investigator or private individual seeking you isn't going to have access to all the databases, including Social Security and other government databases - but you have to assume that whoever's looking for you is going to break the law. You have to assume that an investigator could be an ex-cop who has a buddy at the FBI that can check for him or her. "You always have to assume that the person is going to pull strings" and bend the law.
Bottom line: When you're on the run, the people looking for you can make dozens of mistakes. And you can't make any.
Additional reporting by Katharine Trendacosta.