In the seminal book on disappearing privacy, 1984, George Orwell came up with the adage, “Big Brother is Watching You” and never more so than now does that warning ring true. With CCTV cameras becoming increasingly commonplace worldwide, personal information being shared and cataloged on social media like never before, the dark web becoming a viable black market outlet, and GPS-enhanced smartphones in everyone’s palm, tracking a person down or seeing what they’ve been up to is easier than ever for law enforcement, bill collectors or people who just want to troll you on the Internet and cause you harm. With fake news, alternate facts, thought police, doublespeak and even Amazon Echo’s and Apple iPhones recording people’s misdeeds, life is getting very Orwellian as the Trumps and Duterte’s of the world wreak havoc on personal liberties and institute the kind of New World Order that conspiracy theorists have talked about for decades.
Modern day life is getting more like The Matrix everyday, where we are seemingly connected to a virtual world that is more real than our own. Frank M. Ahearn, whose services include locating people, creating both online and offline privacy, and helping people vanish, has written books like The Art of Disappearing, Skip Tracing and How to Disappear from Big Brother, that focus on helping people create a lifestyle based on freedom, not the Minority Report-like existence we are currently heading toward. His clients include virtual entities, digital nomads and expatriates. The Daily Beast talked to him about the best ways to stay off the grid, how technology can help someone escape the confines of modern society, how to erase your digital footprint, and what tools are available to combat the digital world.
In today’s tech savvy world what is the best way to stay off the grid? Frank M. Ahearn: Before going off the grid you need to think of a few important items. How will you earn money and how will you access that money without being traced? After that is figured out an important aspect to think about is how do you get from point A to point B without leaving footprints that can be traced to you. This is something a lot of people do not think about, they focus too much on the end game and not what is in between. The best and only way to stay off the grid is to not create connections which can lead to your whereabouts. You must think of your actions as strings- when you place a phone call, go to the supermarket, surf the internet and other digital activities. How can those strings expose you and how can you cut the strings? The strategy is to distance yourself from the connections. Instead of you purchasing a prepaid phone, have another person go into the store and purchase the phone. Their face will be connected to the transaction, not yours.
How do you erase your digital footprint? You cannot erase your digital footprints! If you press enter, send or download they will exist forever. It is best to use digital footprints to your advantage and create disinformation. One can leak out information online about being in Albania or Atlanta and by doing so, it directs the predator to those areas. A minimal footprint travel… If you leave LA and land in Paris, perhaps hitch hike to Nice or take a car share where no ID or ticket is needed. This is not to say footprints are not created, but more so reduced.
However, keep in mind that you can do a million and one things to attempt to avoid creating footprints and midway through be stopped in a car for speeding. Therefore, everything done prior is useless. I say embrace the footprints and learn to be a Sun Tzu of disappearing by being able to manipulate for your benefit.
What are your top tips to people who want to disappear? Decide how you will earn money before you go. Create a plausible background story before you disappear. Never, use a fake identity. Always remember you are disappeared and comfortability kills! Never tell anyone where you are disappearing to. Never tell anyone you are disappeared. Pressing enter, send and download always crates footprint.
Why is privacy so important, especially in today’s Internet based world? It is the non-tangible of who we are, the digital ghost of ourselves. If we let go of our privacy, we will never get it back. I think we have the right to claim our digital selves. I also think we should have the right to decide what people and governments know about us. Also, I think with this right we should have the ability to remove ourselves from the Internet. Unfortunately, the idea of the Right to Be Forgotten in Europe is limited. Most important is, there is no truth meter on the internet. If you read something about someone, there is no way to determine if it is true. Unfortunately, when people seek out information about other people they tend to focus on the negative.
With the advances in smartphones do you think there will be a day that the smartphones start extracting information from us instead of vice versa? I think that day is partially here. Almost every phone app you download wants access to your GPS and other information. The problem with technology is we do not know what it currently extracts or how that information is utilized or going to be utilized. I think the partial purpose of smartphones is to extract everything about and from us. I think the ultimate would be to create the smartphone that can extract DNA. Currently smart phones can take your thumbprint and eye scan, what next? I think the strategy of the future is to think all is possible and all will happen. With this attitude, one should think carefully about the technology they currently utilize and the information the technology or app wants requests.
How has the digital world changed the art of finding people online? Social media has helped since it is an indiscreet dumping ground for personal information. Friends and family upload information without your permission. If I am hired to locate you and I cannot find you, I search for a relative. I contact the relative and create a pretext for them to give up your information. It has truly made researching people a lot easier. Yet, remember the internet is only information, not fact. Therefore, when I locate information or someone, I need to figure out how to confirm the information is accurate and current. I was hunting down a has been writer once and unable to get a physical location on him. I set up a bogus talent management website and contacted the subject. I explained a producer was interested in optioning his book for a film. I am sure you can figure how that worked out.
What are the ways that people can use technology to escape their current situation? Technology makes it possible to live in one country, own a business in another country and bank in a third. This to a degree can create near ultimate privacy. The idea is to become a virtual entity and not be connected to anything physical. To be virtual is the true meaning of disappearing. Again, one must think about connections and embracing certain technologies that can assist in being virtual. Think, offshore banking, VOIP numbers, offshore corporations, prepaid mobile phones, mail drops, digital disinformation and such. The litmus test is, if any of these technologies can lead to your front door, you have a problem.
How does social media make it easy to find people? The problem with social media is, there is no accountability and anybody can post something about you without your permission. I have located people because there have been photos of them posted with the names of stores or streets in the background. Or a Tweet about a subject getting drunk in a bar in Miami. There seems to be minimal discretion when people utilize social media. Much of the time people forget to close their social sites when they no longer participate so the information dwells. I hit up a person’s about page on Facebook and I can locate their employment. If you have a phone number pop it into Facebook and see what you discover.
What about encryption technology and the Dark Web? How can these be used to help people disappear? I think one should always assume there is a crack in the system. Even when it comes to encrypted. Keep in mind just because something is private or secure at this moment, it does not mean it private and secure in twenty minutes from now. Also, just because a company claims it offers privacy it does not mean it is true. How does one test such systems and programs? They don’t they simply believe and hope the company is offering truth. Big business lies!
How is it even possible to avoid using a smartphone, the Internet or credit cards in todays society? We don’t have chips in us yet, but how close do you think we are to that? I think there is a deeper problem and it is society is falling into the role of giving their information away. There is also a part of society that would want to indulge in a chip. Although, I do not think chips are going to happen, there is no need for them because social surveillance will be everywhere. Why slip a chip in a person when facial recognition can do the job? Why slip a chip when people press agree to download invasive apps? Why slip a chip when society is becoming a willing participant?
Everyone talks about 1984 and Big Brother is watching how true is that today? Yes! Yet, Big Brother is only part of the problem. Big Business is equally as invasive. The evil twins! To push it further, your neighbor is watching, the person across from you on the metro is watching and your smartphone is watching. The truth is business extracting more personal information about us than the government. Every piece of data or information about us us being collected, evaluated and eventually used against us. The problem with any item that is voice remote, it has the ability to listen, when does it stop listening? Can it be triggered on any time? Who in the company has access? Is that information associated with out identity? How will that information be used? To a degree, we surfed the net and it was us going out, but now technology and intrusion is coming into our homes. I believe we must be cautious as to the technologies we allow freedom in our homes. It is just search warrant away from our privacy.
What are the weapons you can use to combat the digital world? Disinformation is the most important tools. If you do not make it appear you are else where you leave yourself vulnerable to being discovered. Using the internet and social media is an excellent tool. Creating Facebook pages that show photos of elsewhere or blogs about cities never visited. In addition, one could give their credit card to a trusted ally and let that ally use the card in one city but they are in another. The key is to have the predator search in A while yo are in B.
*For more information check out www.FrankAhearn.com