Can you vanish during the digital age?

Wired is one of my favorite magazines, and the recent story by Evan Ratliff is one of my all-time favorites. Ratliff tried an interesting experiment, as he tried to disappear without a trace and then challenge the world to find him.

The idea for the contest started with a series of questions, foremost among them: How hard is it to vanish in the digital age? Long fascinated by stories of faked deaths, sudden disappearances, and cat-and-mouse games between investigators and fugitives, I signed on to write a story for Wired about people who’ve tried to end one life and start another. People fret about privacy, but what are the consequences of giving it all up, I wondered. What can investigators glean from all the digital fingerprints we leave behind? You can be anybody you want online, sure, but can you reinvent yourself in real life?

It’s one thing to report on the phenomenon of people disappearing. But to really understand it, I figured that I had to try it myself. So I decided to vanish. I would leave behind my loved ones, my home, and my name. I wasn’t going off the grid, dropping out to live in a cabin. Rather, I would actually try to drop my life and pick up another.

Wired offered a $5,000 bounty — $3,000 of which would come out of my own pocket — to anyone who could locate me between August 15 and September 15, say the password “fluke,” and take my picture.

The story is a compelling read, so I won’t reveal what happened. Read the story first, and then go back and read some of the follow-up blog posts.

The struggle for privacy will be one of the enduring issues facing us in this century, and we’re just getting started. The Ratliff story poses some interesting questions for all of us to ponder.


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