While working on a piece about what it takes to disappear from your life in a digital age, Wired Magazine reporter Evan Ratliff and senior editor Nick Thompson decided to try it themselves. Ratliff has vanished. Thompson is looking for him. You can too. Who ever finds him wins $5000. Thompson lays out the rules.
Dance of the Inhabitants of the Palace of the King
Artist: John Fahey
By February of 2008, life had become unbearable for Matthew Alan Sheppard. He was in over his head at work. He charged some personal items on his corporate credit card, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. He felt stressed and trapped by his mistakes, and so he did what many thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of people do every year, he vanished. Specifically, he faked his own death, fled to Mexico and assumed a new identity. But after two months he got lonely and missed his family, so when, in anticipation of rejoining his wife and daughter, he asked for the girl’s school records, he was caught and imprisoned for fraud. Sheppard’s story features prominently in the September issue of Wired Magazine in a piece about what it takes to disappear in the digital age. Wired Reporter Evan Ratliff and Senior Editor Nick Thompson wanted to know if all the technology we use and all the digital traces we leave behind make it easier or harder to disappear. In the course of working on the piece, Ratliff and Thompson had another idea. Why don't they see for themselves? Ratliff would [LAUGHS] vanish for one month, Thompson and anyone else who wanted to could try to find him. The reward, 5,000 [LAUGHS] dollars, 3,000 of which will come out of Ratliff’s pocket. Wired Senior Editor Nick Thompson joins us to explain the rules. Nick, welcome to the show.
NICK THOMPSON: Thanks for having me here.
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me specifically what Evan is permitted to do in hiding from the world.
NICK THOMPSON: What we've done is we set up a whole series of rules to make sure it’s not too easy for him to get away. What he has to do is he has to constantly be on Facebook, be on Twitter. He has to create new accounts, but he'll be on there somewhere. He’s checking his email, apparently, and he’s given me all of his passwords and all of the information that a private investigator would have. So I have his credit card statements, I have his bank statements, I have his FasTrak, the equivalent of E-ZPass statements. I've got a lot and a lot of data on him, and I'm publishing it online. And Evan, of course, because he’s computer-savvy, is hiding his tracks. So, for example, I logged into Evan’s email this morning and it told me the last five places that anyone had logged into Evan’s email from, so I have the addresses of the computers that he logged in on. So I published those on the website, on Wired.com. Readers look in, they check the addresses, and it turns out, well, actually it looks like he’s been in Moscow, he’s been in Boston, he’s been in Germany, all [BOB LAUGHS] within the space of a couple of hours. So the man – [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Because, as we’ve reported on this program, there is software out there that is very useful in China and Iran that enables you to get onto the Internet using the IP addresses of remote computers so that the government can't track you down.
NICK THOMPSON: [LAUGHS] Right, so Evan is taking advantage of software used by dissidents to hide from me.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, one of the rules is that he can't really disappear-disappear. He can't go into the woods somewhere with a tent and a Coleman stove and just chill until the month is gone.
NICK THOMPSON: You know, it would be very easy to go into Yellowstone for a month, and nobody would track you down. So we said, you know what, you have to stay in cities. You have to pretend to be living the life of somebody who really has tried to start anew. So he’s going to be living like he would want to live in a normal world and he’s going to be doing things, like trying to find a job, that he would do if he were to disappear for his whole life, not if you just have a one-month experiment.
BOB GARFIELD: Has he screwed up so far, left too big a clue, failed to cover his tracks in a material way that has surprised you?
NICK THOMPSON: Well, I don't know. He’s certainly given us some clues about things he’s bought and, you know, he’s driving north, according to tolls. But it could all be misdirection. Yesterday I got quite scared. Somebody created a Twitter account under the name of Thrimp Johnson. Thrimp Johnson is a name that Evan sometimes uses online, and we mentioned that, and somebody immediately figured that out. And then they noticed that whoever was tweeting as Thrimp Johnson is at a golf course in Sacramento. So they said, go to Sacramento and get him. And for a second, looking at the Twitter feed, I thought, oh, my God, Evan created far too obvious a false identity, somebody’s figured it out, and they're going to get him on the second day? This was way too easy. But, of course [LAUGHS], he wasn't there. Who knows who was there? Who knows who created that account, and who knows but Evan?
[BOB LAUGHS] Another fun clue. So, yesterday there’s something on his credit card. It’s a Fed-Ex delivery. It’s being delivered. Okay, let's put in the tracking number, let's figure out where it goes. Oh, it’s going to Washington. How interesting. Let's see who signed it. If we get that, we'll get a clue. It turns out the person who signed for it was named D. Person. Ah-ha, monkeying with us again. So, who knows?
BOB GARFIELD: In Evan’s original story about Matthew Alan Sheppard, he made reference to the movie Day of the Jackal, from the '70s, about how easy it was for the international assassin to create a new identity for himself by simply finding a death certificate from a dead child and getting documents created. It’s not so simple in 2009. And can you tell me the ways in which it is so much less simple than it used to be?
NICK THOMPSON: Well okay, so let's say it was the 1970s and you want to start anew. You disappear and you begin again. People try to find you. Well, first of all, they're going to need photographs of you. Where are they going to get those? Well, they can call family members. They can track it down. But where can you get photographs of Evan Ratliff? They're all over the place. You can get photos from his Ultimate Frisbee team in college. He has a Flickr stream. There are photographs of Evan absolutely everywhere. Okay well, in the 1970s, you want to learn about somebody, you want to learn their habits. Well, it turns out that Evan has a Facebook page that you can mine and you can learn everything about him. The guy likes soccer, he likes Frisbee, he likes to drink beer, or actually he doesn't like to drink beer anymore because he’s just been diagnosed with celiac disease, which we know about, so now we know he likes to drink cheap red wine. So suddenly you can build a very good profile of who Evan Ratliff is, based on the little pieces of information that already exist and that are searchable through Google.
BOB GARFIELD: And you know not to look for him anywhere gluten is served.
NICK THOMPSON: [LAUGHS] Right. I talked to a friend of his today and I said, so where should somebody look for Evan Ratliff? And he said, look for a guy in a bar reading a book, drinking bad wine and eating a burger without a bun, and you've got him.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Nick, thank you very much for joining us.
NICK THOMPSON: Thanks a lot for having me here.
BOB GARFIELD: Nick Thompson is a senior editor at Wired Magazine. He is the chief investigator in the worldwide manhunt for Evan Ratliff, who, if he chooses to resurface, will be on our show to tell us all about his adventure. This is On the Media from NPR.