Evan Ratliffe, photo by Joe Pugliese
So, exactly how does a person disappear in today's modern world? Wired decided to answer that very question, using writer Evan Ratliffe as the guinea pig:
I’m driving East out of San Francisco on I-80, fleeing my life under the cover of dusk. Having come to the interstate by a circuitous route, full of quick turns and double backs, I’m reasonably sure that no one is following me. I keep checking the rearview mirror anyway. From this point on, there’s no such thing as sure. Being too sure will get me caught.
I had intended to flee in broad daylight, but when you are going on the lam, there are a surprising number of last-minute errands to run. This morning, I picked up a set of professionally designed business cards for my fake company under my fake name, James Donald Gatz. I drove to a Best Buy, where I bought two prepaid cell phones with cash and then put a USB cord on my credit card — an arbitrary dollar amount I hoped would confuse investigators, who would scan my bill and wonder what gadgetry I had purchased. An oil change for my car was another head fake. Who would think that a guy about to sell his car would spend $60 at Oil Can Henry’s?
I already owned a couple of prepaid phones; I left one of the new ones with my girlfriend and mailed the other to my parents — giving them an untraceable way to contact me in emergencies. I bought some Just for Men beard-and-mustache dye at a drugstore. My final stop was the bank, to draw a $477 cashier’s check. It’s payment for rent on an anonymous office in Las Vegas, which is where I need to deliver the check by midday tomorrow.
Crossing the Bay Bridge, I glance back for a last nostalgic glimpse of the skyline. Then I reach over, slide the back cover off my cell phone, and pop out the battery. A cell phone with a battery inside is a cell phone that’s trackable.
Wired then offered a reward for enterprising investigators to find him. What follows is an interesting cat-and-mouse game, and full of interesting information about exactly how seemingly hard it is to disappear in our increasingly surveilled age.
Of course, Ratliffe's disappearance was still a game. It was an extremely revealing game, and he's clearly a smart guy who did a whole bunch of research in how not to be found. But it missed some key factors that I'll get into in a moment.
By contrast, federal agencies have, for the past seven years, been spending millions to create a system that better tracks homeless and transient populations. Ratliffe, with ingenuity and extensive preparation, had an extremely difficult time keeping ahead of his pursuers. Meanwhile, the government's spending millions because social agencies have a hell of a time tracking down individuals whose invisibility was often accidental, conducted with practically no resources.
This happens because the best way to escape notice is when no one's looking; and when there's an entire social network out there to keep it that way. Despite the seeming pervasiveness of records and monitoring technology, there are entire populations of such "ghosts" in the cities of our time.
For a more specific contrast, take the example of Mike Brodie, the train-hopping photographic savant whose amazing polaroids offered glimpses of America's under-underclass. While his work received some major attention, Brodie's seemingly disappeared over the past two years into the underground from whence he came.
His case is hardly atypical, and it's even easier for plenty of those with less renown to shift (or fall) into a world where there are no records. This is partly because all tracking methods, no matter how technologically advanced, run up against the fact that someone has to be watching and linking all the data that's been gathered. People who drop to the bottom rungs of the social ladder don't have that.
When gang members are busted, there's often no record of their existence besides a birth certificate, some school documents and their criminal history. They're invisible, known inside their own networks and cultures, sometimes wealthier than many a more documented citizen, but otherwise invisible. They deal in cash, residing in cultures that, by necessity, have generations of knowledge in escaping official notice, based in populations that officialdom does its best to interact little with.
Tommy DeSimone (the basis for Joe Pesci's character in Goodfellas) once shot a stranger just to demonstrate his cruelty. As he was ensconced in the Mafia underworld, the police would meet a blank wall when making any inquiries about that or many of his other killings. Even though DeSimone was patently insane, that culture had other ways of dealing with its misbehaving ghosts that didn't involve official criminal trials.
Leaving aside criminals and transients, there are plenty of people who simply flit through the gaps. 50 million Americans don't even have a credit score.
So, to posit an alternate universe: imagine for a moment if Ratliffe had run away at 16 and become homeless. How easy, years later, would it be to find him?
Instead the mainstream that Ratliffe was actually coming from is set up by those who participate in it to insure reliability — and in a society as vast as ours, that means records. That's why he had to make up a fake identity and business to have any chance of his charade succeeding: even on the lam he was dealing with people who wanted proof, however minimal, that he paid his bills on time and had some financial stability.
Not so with the dirt-poor or other populations that dwell on its fringes. By necessity, they've found different ways of survival. For many reasons, much of the rest of society doesn't look at them and thus, they disappear.
Thousands do it every day. Odds are you'll walk past a few of them tonight.