How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails and Vanish without a Trace

Posted on by Ben Rothke

A book such as How to Disappear : Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish without a Trace, scores very high on the cool factor.  Ultimately though, it’s one of those books that details things you should not try at home. 

Author Frank Ahearn is a professional skip tracer; which is a person who locates other people.  The term comes from the word skip being used to describe the person being searched for, and comes from the idiomatic expression to skip town, meaning to depart, perhaps in a rush, and leaving minimal clues behind for someone to trace the skip to a new location.  Often these people are wanted by the government, family, spouses, or other authorities. 

The book is touted as the “authoritative and comprehensive guide for people who seek to protect their privacy, as well as for anyone who’s ever entertained the fantasy of disappearing - whether actually dropping out of sight or by eliminating the traceable evidence of their existence”.  Those are a number of very different goals. 

For those who seek to protect their daily privacy in the physical world, the book provides a lot of good, high-level insights. 

Since the author admits he isn’t a technology expert, the book doesn’t offer significant input on how to ensure online privacy, short of saying that one shouldn’t use social media.  Readers wanting to protect their online privacy can use effective resources such as CDT's Guide to Online Privacy for such topics.

Most people want to protect their privacy, and while many do entertain a fantasy of simply disappearing, the reality is that true disappearance is extraordinarily difficult and fraught with risk. 

At 197 small pages, the book is a quick read and covers all of the key points.  The book does have a lot of good details, but isn’t the definitive text, as the devil is in the details, and many of those details are missing in the book.  The person who truly wants to disappear would need an expert like Ahearn to work with them, rather than simply relying on the book alone. 

The danger in a book like this is that it may lead someone to attempt to disappear on a whim.  That is a great way to get themselves in a fine mess, often ending up in more trouble than before their aborted disappearance attempt. 

The book focuses on 3 key areas: misinformation (destroying all the data known about you), disinformation (creating fake trails) and reformation (act of getting you from origination to destination without leaving any clues).

Some of the books ideas are similar to the federal witness protection program.  In the federal program, witnesses are encouraged to keep their first names and choose last names with the same initial in order to make it easier to instinctively use the new identity. 

Like the federal witness program, the books notes that in order to prevent the possibility of someone being followed, they should use a convoluted and indirect transportation path before finally reaching the location where they will live under the new identity. This path often involves a long chain of seemingly random routes which are intended to be difficult for a skip tracer to find or anticipate. 

The book includes numerous stories of real-world scenarios in which Ahearn was involved with, and shows how to avoid their mistakes. 

Many people envision disappearing as being on a beach with endless beers.  Ahearn paints a reality involving endless use of disposable cell phones, cash cards, and remote mail boxes.  But that is a lonely existence most people don’t seem ready for. 

Can someone really change themselves?  Yes, but it’s very expensive and difficult to hide without changing your identity and you certainly cannot hide from the government without changing your identity.  The book is ultimately for someone who has a lot of money, as there is no way to create a new life on the cheap. 

The book doesn’t detail how to create a completely new identity in a new location, something that seemingly only a witness protection program can do, and mainly is about leaving false trails so that those looking for you can’t find you. 

For the person contemplating disappearing, they must ask themselves if they really want to live a life of endless prepaid phone cards and prepaid credit cards, using only free wireless and disposable USB memory cards as the book suggests.  The book is about ensuring that one’s old life and new life don’t connect.  After a few months of that, most people will likely be quite lonely.

The author notes that most people want to disappear for two main reasons: danger or money. Some people deal with stalkers, abusive ex-spouses or someone who came into money and doesn’t want friends or family to locate them. 

In a recent interview, Ahearn suggested New Zealand is one of the best places to disappear, as it’s a long way off and has great beaches, is an English-speaking country and it’s easy to acclimate to life there.  But for a lifelong Red Sox fan do they really want to root for the New Zealand Warriors rugby team?  Does the person understand the cold reality of vegemite?  

Ultimately this is an interesting, but impractical book for the vast majority of people.  Can one disappear?  Perhaps, but it’s getting harder, even with an expert like Ahearn.  Perhaps the biggest deterrent should be Google StreetView.  Even if one moves far away, StreetView is there, ready to announce your location to the world. 

For most readers How to Disappear : Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish without a Trace will be an entertaining book that does have valuable information. 

Ultimately, for those considering disappearing, they need to understand the implications of loudly shutting the door on their way out of society.  They should contemplate that before they take a course of action they are likely going to regret.

Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

Identity Privacy

data security identity management & governance privacy

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