Evan Ratliff was captured this week. He's the Wired Magazine contributor who decided to see for himself whether it's possible to disappear and reemerge with a brand new identity in the digital age. Wired Magazine launched a contest. Whoever located him within one month would get $5,000 ($3,000 paid by Ratliff himself). A little lighter in the wallet, Ratliff talks about his brief life on the run.
BOB GARFIELD: The hunt for Evan Ratliff lasted 24 days. Ratliff, you may remember from a few weeks back, is the Wired magazine writer who wrote about how countless people try to disappear and reemerge with new identities. Ratliff decided to try it himself to see if he could shed his identity despite all of the digital footprints he, and the rest of us, leave everywhere we go, from Facebook and Flickr to frequent flyer miles and credit cards. So, Ratliff disappeared. His editor, Nick Thompson, acted as a private investigator, feeding clues via a blog to anyone who wanted to join the chase. The reward for finding Evan within 30 days: 5,000 dollars, 3,000 of which [LAUGHS] come out of Evan’s own pocket. The rule, Evan would act like someone who really wanted to start over. He couldn't just camp out in Yellowstone for a month. He had to live in cities, spend money, try to get a job, basically to start a new life. Had he evaded capture for just a few more days, he'd be 3,000 dollars richer now, but, alas. Evan Ratliff, [LAUGHS] welcome back to On the Media.
EVAN RATLIFF: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so first of all, Jason Bourne you’re not.
EVAN RATLIFF: Apparently not.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Give me an idea of what you did to hide your tracks.
EVAN RATLIFF: In terms of digitally hiding my tracks, I used a piece of software called Tor, which is used often by dissidents and people trying to keep their Internet surfing private. I used that software to hide a lot of my connections when I was logging on to follow people who were searching for me. On top of that, I had fake email accounts, fake Twitter account, I had a fake Facebook account, and I was using those to kind of set up my new identity while leaving behind most of my old one.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this turned out to be one of your mistakes. What were the names on these various accounts that you set up?
EVAN RATLIFF: The new name that I was operating under was James Donald Gatz, James Gatz being [BOB LAUGHS] Jay Gatsby’s original name in The Great Gatsby and Donald being my middle name, partly because it’s really hard to operate under a fake name. Using my middle name was easier to respond to. It also allowed me to then shift, and I started using James or J.D. once I got further along.
BOB GARFIELD: Was there anywhere, for example, on your Facebook page that you had made public the fact that you were a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby?
EVAN RATLIFF: I had, yeah, I had, so once people came across that name it wasn't that difficult for them to sort of connect it with my own profile that they had already developed using everything that I'd left online.
BOB GARFIELD: When we spoke to Nick Thompson a couple of weeks ago, he suggested that one way you may get caught is by trying to track your trackers and that you would be somehow baited into an e trap.
EVAN RATLIFF: That was absolutely the case. In fact, I listened to that interview with Nick. And I knew that’s how they were trying to catch me, but the problem was that when you’re on the run and you don't have any idea how close people are, the level of paranoia just goes off the charts. Everyone that I encountered that even looked my way, I thought, oh, well, this is the guy, this is the woman who’s looking for me. So obsessively monitoring my pursuers was the only way for me to keep myself remotely grounded and thinking, well, okay, they're not that close, or I know they're looking here so I'll try to direct them there.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I must tell you that I have read two accounts of the means by which you were finally I.D.’d and nabbed but understood almost not a word of it. I would like you to heroically attempt to explain to me how they did eventually track you down.
EVAN RATLIFF: The basics of it are that I appeared in a video. In that video I had a certain look that I was using at the beginning, goatee and kind of long hair and these Harry Potter round glasses. I later leaked that video because I wanted people to think that I still looked like that, and I had changed my look. I had shaved my head. One of the trackers who was following me, whose name is Jeff, and he lives in Seattle, when he saw that video, he noticed a similarity between that and a picture of someone who was following the pursuit on Facebook, which was me and my fake account. Once he noticed that, he started unraveling my fake accounts. And he had fake Twitter accounts that he used to try to follow my Twitter. He contacted people who were following my Twitter, because it was closed to the public. Then he [LAUGHS] used that information to figure out that I was logging on to his website without protecting my Internet address because I didn't actually believe that he could log my location that easily, and I also thought it would kind of get lost in the noise. Once he had my Internet address, he could narrow that down to where I was staying, which was New Orleans. Then he got in touch with a pizza place here that makes gluten free pizza. I have celiac disease so I have to eat a gluten free diet, and so he knew I was interested in that pizza place. And then he enlisted them to basically find me, and they tracked me down at a book reading.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Any thoughts as to what would make Jeff, or anybody, devote the amount of time to tracking down a total stranger?
EVAN RATLIFF: I can, and actually I don't think it was about the money. In the same way that I was kind of living out a fantasy about vanishing from their life, and I got emails from people along the way who were saying, I've always wanted to do this and, you know, I've thought about it, and how hard is it really, and that kind of thing, I feel like people on the other side who chasing me were getting to live out a fantasy of being the P.I. and getting to best me. I was trying to hide, they were trying to catch me, and we were both completely wrapped up in it.
BOB GARFIELD: Does the fact that you got caught in less than the 30 days allotted to this chase tell you anything about, in the real world whether it is possible nowadays to really vanish from the face of the earth?
EVAN RATLIFF: Of course, a person who’s going to normally vanish would probably not do a lot of things that I did. I mean, the best thing to do is to not go online. You really have to drop everything. I mean, it’s not just the overlap with your old life. It’s really using any of your new life technologies to follow the pursuit or return to your background in any way. It’s really, really difficult not to do, but it’s the only way for someone to actually get away if they want to do it over a long period of time.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Evan. [LAUGHING] Welcome back to your old life, and thank you.
EVAN RATLIFF: Thank you.
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BOB GARFIELD: Evan Ratliff is a contributor for Wired magazine. He'll write about his account of this whole ordeal in the December issue of Wired.