There are lots of reasons to unplug from the grid. And I’m not talking about the electrical grid. I mean the “grid” as in the whole digital world. Maybe you’ve had it up to here (picture my hand at my forehead) with all the digital flotsam that inundates you every day from work e-mail to social network nattering. Perhaps you need to go on the lam. (We’re not here to judge.) Maybe you need to get away from someone who makes you crazy or, quite seriously, from someone else’s abuse.
Your reasons are yours. However, we’re here to tell you that it isn’t going to be easy. Just search your name on sites like Intelius, Whitepages, Reputation.com, Spokeo, Zabasearch, and Pipl. Odds are you’re easy to find. Just by reading this story on PCMag.com, we can guess you’re probably at a computer that has an IP address that can be tracked, and that’s where the problems begin. Cell phones, credit card purchases, travel check-ins, and even just a drive through a toll booth are all ways that you can be traced not just by Big Brother, but individuals as well. Skiptracers and private eyes can find what they need online to get to you if you continue to live digitally even after you’ve left your old life behind.
So what do you do to disappear truly? I warn you, it’s not pretty. Picture every movie or TV show you’ve seen about witness protection programs and add in the extra dash of paranoia that comes from not having U.S. Marshalls on your side. Then get ready to live as you’ve never lived before. Whether you need to go on the run or you just want to settle down into less digital life, here’s how to get lost.
Digital Dos and Don’ts
Can you get off the grid and still live digitally? Probably not. If you retain your digital life, you’re going to leave breadcrumbs. The only way to stay completely anonymous is to turn it all off. That means no cell phones, no credit cards, no Web surfing. You can’t even use a computer.
However, if you can’t handle that, here are some options that can keep you online and, perhaps, off the radar.
1. Lose the Cell Phone
It might be your digital lifeline, but when you’re trying to hide, your cell phone is a digital bull’s eye. Those with access can easily triangulate your position based on your cell signal. You don’t even need to make a call, as phones are always talking to towers to get the best signal available. A built-in GPS only makes it easier.
If you can, take out the battery. You can always pop it back in for a true emergency. You can also leave the phone somewhere to misdirect tracers. The latter is best if you’ve got a phone with a battery you can’t access. (Apple iPhones are not for fugitives.)
You don’t have to go without phone access completely. Buy pre-paid phones on the cheap at a department store or gas station. Give one to your most trusted friend or loved one and keep the other. That way, only the two of you can talk or text. In 2010, Congress proposed a bill to ban selling anonymous pre-paid phones to fight terrorism. It stalled out, though, so you can still get one without showing ID in most states. For now.
For an extra layer of protection, don’t use the phone to make a direct phone call. Instead, use a pre-paid calling card.
Also, get some portable, solar-powered chargers for your gadgets, so you don’t have to rely on the outlets. Powermonkey eXplorer has plugs for just about every kind of phone and doesn’t require much light to charge a device.
2. Make Purchases Using Gift Cards
It’s not impossible to make Web purchases while off the grid. Use your cash to purchase credit gift cards, such as Visa or American Express. They’re available just about anywhere. You can use them for purchases online and off and then chuck them after they’re used up. (Try to rotate where you get deliveries.) The transaction with those cards is between the retailer and credit card company, your personal details are not required and nothing shows up on a statement.
3. Forget Being Social
It’s time to give up on Facebook and Twitter. Seriously. Just walk away. If you can’t go cold turkey, create anonymous accounts from remote locations. Friend a few bots to keep your number of friends/followers high for your psychological fitness, since you, by definition, don’t have any friends at this point. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t friend or follow people you know.
4. Erase Info from Pictures
If you’re still in the habit of sending or posting digital pictures online, at the very least, strip out the EXIF data on the image file. This information includes the make of the camera, date and time the pic was taken, and, with some modern cameras, geographical location info. With enough pics and time, someone could easily figure out where you’ve been, if not where you’re going. The free EXIFstripper program for Windows will do it.
5. Encrypt Messages
You may still need to send some e-mails. Naturally, you’ll set up a brand new account. Even then, it’s best to make sure no one can read what you send. For super secrecy, you need to encrypt messages you send. For a double-whammy, access Gmail using Thunderbird, but utilize GPG (GNU Privacy Guard) to encrypt messages via the Enigmail plug-in.
A simpler tool is Encipher.it, an AES Text encryptor that works with Gmail or any other Web-based text. Click the Encipher It bookmarklet you install, give the text an encryption key, watch it get garbled, and send it. The person on the other end needs the key to decipher it.
6. Hide Your IP Address
A sure way to get noticed is to visit a website that collects IP addresses from its visitors; this can even happen with some Facebook applications. Once an IP is matched to you, it’s simple enough for law enforcement or clever skiptracers to call the ISP assigned that IP address and match it to a user. Even if it’s not direct to you, it could be too close for comfort. It gets worse if you’re surfing from a school or business. They can track you right to your dorm or cubicle.
A proxy server can help. Tor (aka The Onion Router) helps prevent people from seeing you, by routing your webpage requests through multiple routers on the Internet. The people at the other end will see an IP address for a router nowhere near your computer. Bundles exist for every major operating system and even some smartphones (Android, iOS, and Nokia), though some are more finished than others. There’s a browser bundle and an IM bundle, and both come in multiple languages. The bundles will run from a USB flash drive, so you don’t even need to use your computer. There is a Firefox add-on called Torbutton that lets you enable Tor instantly with one click.
Several Chrome extensions promise the same features (search for “anonymous”). At the very least, use a website like Proxify or Hide My Ass!, both Web-based proxy servers, to do searches and visit sites. The very popular Ghostery extension, available for Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera, and IE shows you which sites are tracking you.
7. Don’t Sign In
When it comes to free Wi-Fi, often you’ll need to sign in, which means creating an account. Avoid these places, if you can. Starbucks and Barnes & Nobles are plentiful, and the AT&T Wi-Fi they use doesn’t require anything more than clicking to reaccess every couple of hours. Once you’re online, however, put a VPN to work for you to help prevent wireless snoopers from seeing what you’re doing. Hotspot Shield will do this and it’s free (or pay $30 to avoid seeing their ads). Or, you could set up a router with VPN support at a remote location and link to it direct (providing another hop for people to contemplate).
8. Don’t Look for a Tail
Don’t go searching for a digital tail. It’s a classic way for the pursuer to get the pursuee because anyone on the run wants to know how close they are to getting caught. If you start looking online to see what people know about you, your location, or your activities, chances are you could stumble into a honeypot meant just for you. Try not to Google yourself and stay away from posting misinformation anonymously.
9. Don’t Disappear: Deceive
Former skiptracer Frank Ahearn wrote How to Disappear in 2010. But last year, he decided a new tactic was more important. All of the info people can find about you online generally comes from one source—you. So, an easier tactic might be to hide in plain sight by filling the Internet with incorrect information. That means using things like social networks to put misinformation out there. Reducing your digital footprint is certainly important, but if you still want to stay online, deceiving people about where you live, your income, and members of your family, can make it hard for pursuers to find you. Ahearn suggests in his latest book The Digital Hitman that you create yourself an imaginary life and start making status updates to that effect. The more misinformation the pursuer gets, the more time they waste looking around or confirming it.
Looking over your shoulder yet? Yeah, this may be overkill, but what it demonstrates is just how it easy it is to be tracked. So, be careful, don’t overshare, use common sense when you’re online, and take precautions with the amount of personal information you put out there.
Think we’re nuts? Check out this Wiredstory about Evan Ratliff, a journalist who went on the run for a month while trying to stay digitally connected, as part of a contest the magazine held in 2009.