Is It Possible to Disappear in a Digital World?
It started with a typewriter . . . or, maybe, a turntable. Both of these old-school gadgets came into my life at a time when I was most ready to receive them — winter, when the days were short, and soon after I’d had my identity stolen.
My ID theft didn’t happen in the way you probably imagine — a credit card number siphoned off in a data breach or lifted from a sketchy website. I’ve always been a careful person. I always lock my doors. I don’t post vacation photos on social media while I’m on vacation. I don’t have any banking apps on my phone, and I never log in to check my balance from public Wi-Fi.
My identity theft happened in the most low-tech way imaginable. I was walking my dogs at a park near downtown. Someone smashed my car window, stole my purse, and made off with my credit cards, debit cards, driver’s license, lip balm, gloves, sunglasses, gum, mini measuring tape, flip knife, and all of my punch cards.
The worst of these losses turned out to be my driver’s license and the gloves (which the company doesn’t make anymore). Even after I closed my credit cards and alerted my bank to the theft, the perpetrators were able to use my driver’s license to make direct withdrawals from my checking account, visiting branch after branch all over the city.
When they got tired of Colorado Springs, they moved on to Denver and then Boulder. It was a runaway nightmare.
The perps made off with around . . . all of my money. They overdrew my business and personal accounts and tried to pass someone else’s bad checks through my account. And because the funds had been withdrawn from my checking accounts — which are regulated by the FDIC — these transactions didn’t magically go away with a call to the credit card company.
Even worse, getting a new driver’s license wouldn’t help. According to my banker, new accounts under the name Tarah Benner could still be accessed from someone with my old ID.
How did this get resolved? In a way that was as low-tech as the theft itself. I filed a police report over the phone and had to pay $8.25 in cash to receive a paper copy. I brought my new marriage license and my passport to the social security office to change my legal name. I brought a copy of the police report to the DMV to get a new license.
The funds were restored through provisional credit by a very understanding branch manager. He gave me back my money by accessing the branch’s funds — essentially dipping into its vault. I bought a new purse, started new punch cards, and slowly began piecing my life back together.
In short, this incident made me a little paranoid. It made me realize how quickly a person can lose all their money and credibility when they operate in the world of zeroes and ones. We are utterly reliant on digital systems, and we are utterly vulnerable.
I started investigating whether it was even possible to detach ourselves from the digital umbilical cords we all have wrapped around our necks. Then I stumbled upon this — an article written by Wired writer Evan Ratcliff about his attempts to disappear while remaining plugged in.
Ratcliff’s goal was to see whether he could erase his old identity and create a new digital persona without getting found in real life. Wired ran a contest with a grand prize of $5,000 for any hunters who could track down Ratcliff in person, utter a password, and take his picture.
It’s a fascinating read. In the article, Ratcliff describes how he planned his “disappearance” for months, siphoning cash out of the ATM at regular intervals and growing out his hair and beard for optimal disguise purposes. He purchased two prepaid phones, one of which he gave to his girlfriend. He bought Visa gift cards to use instead of credit cards.
He left a false trail with cards in his old name and began his game of cat-and-mouse by selling his old car, getting a new one, paying cash for cheap hotel rooms, and using various methods of deception to avoid leaving a digital trace. Apparently, the Greyhound bus system is still the best way to travel undetected; Amtrak comes in second place.
The incredible logistical challenges the author faced to travel and live without leaving a digital breadcrumb trail were absolutely astounding, and the more I investigated, the more I realized that we all slough off digital breadcrumbs like dead skin cells.
If you live in a large metropolitan area and own a toll card, for instance, that card isn’t just being tracked every time you go through a tollbooth. It’s being tracked by readers all over the city. Automatic license plate readers take pictures from police cars and street signs, and even most tires have RFID chips embedded inside them that can be read about 20 feet away.
The photos we take are embedded with geolocation metadata, which is recorded on social media sites when we upload our pictures. Not only that, but Facebook and Twitter run all photos through a program called PhotoDNA, which is designed to identify child pornography. Noble aim aside, how long before this technology is used to locate an image of anyone online?
But soon people won’t just be able to track us by where we’ve been. They’ll have the ability to detect our movement in real time. Luxury brands are already embedding RFID chips into their goods so that consumers can easily identify a real designer handbag from a knockoff, and companies like Walmart are using RFID chips in their clothing to manage inventory and prevent theft. Supposedly Walmart’s RFID tags are turned off at purchase, but what evidence do we have that this is actually happening?
Recently I became interested in genealogy, but I was too sketched out to give my DNA to a company like Ancestry.com or 23andMe. Currently the law prevents health insurance companies or employers from using your genetic data against you, but life insurance companies can request your genetic data and refuse to cover you based on the results.
Plus, the laws are ever-changing, and it’s possible that even if you have not taken a genetic test, a test taken by a relative could pose a problem. Like digital data, genetic data has value, and once you give it away, it doesn’t just belong to you.
I started thinking of how sloppy I am with my digital footprint. Google knows me better than most of my friends. I make nearly all of my purchases with a credit or debit card, which act as a map of everywhere I’ve been since my identity was stolen. I carry a portable tracking device in my purse, and my car is tricked out with so much technology that I literally don’t know how to use most of it. I scan a loyalty card to receive discounts when I check out at the grocery store, which tracks every food purchase that I make. And I just bought my husband Tile — these little devices that use Bluetooth to locate lost keys inside our house.
This idea of digital vulnerability became an idea I couldn’t shake. I read Walden and started wondering if all the so-called “progress” we’ve made in terms of technology is worth the privacy, control, and autonomy we lose when we go digital.
When an idea like this takes hold, I’m hard-pressed to shake it. I turned my attention to the most obvious digital culprit: my smartphone.
The summer before, I’d gone to Missouri to visit family and left my iPhone sitting on top of the refrigerator for a week. I was in the middle of planning my wedding, and for the first hour, I panicked. How would I communicate with vendors? How would I check in with friends and family? How would I run my life?
And then I started to settle in. I decided this would be good for me. I needed to unplug.
Throughout the week, I fielded a few calls from my then fiancé’s phone, checked email on my computer, and I was absolutely fine. I didn’t miss Instagram. My purse was lighter. And I had fewer interruptions.
As I thought back to this week of “going dark,” I started wondering what would happen if I gave up my smartphone for real. I’ve never been that attached to social media, so I knew that wouldn’t be an issue. But I’d also be giving up my clock, my calculator, my flashlight, camera, GPS, music player, and podcast machine. Would it really feel like simplifying to tote around a camera on vacation or — gasp! — buy an atlas?
Is this a thing that people do? I wondered. I only knew two people who had “dumb phones”: a devoted hipster I once worked with and my 92-year-old grandma. But I liked the idea of seeing how much I could reduce my digital dependence, so I decided to start small.
First, I deleted all but the essential apps. I only kept Chrome browser, Google Calendar, Maps, Google Sheets, Instagram, Uber, Calculator, Compass, FaceTime, Apple Podcasts, Gmail, Snapfish, and Spotify. All my apps fit on three-fifths of the home screen and the bottom bar, with the exception of the seldom-used ones that I put in a folder. I felt better already.
Then I looked into the possibility of downgrading to a “dumb phone.” My wireless bill at the time was $108.40 per month for one line and 5GB of data. What if I could somehow reclaim that $108.40 per month? I’d save $1,300.80 per year!
But when I called AT&T, I was surprised to learn that I did not own my iPhone. I’d signed up for AT&T Next, which I only vaguely remembered the details of. This meant that I was 11 payments away from owning my iPhone, so naturally I was also paying for insurance on this phone in case of loss or damage.
I made a decision. I was going to pay off my iPhone. In doing so, I was going to sign up for a prepaid plan with 1G of data for $35 per month. One gig was all I needed. It wasn’t as good as being without a smartphone altogether, but it meant that I wouldn’t have to buy a dumb phone. (And anyway, I was stuck with my iPhone until I paid it off.)
Thus began my phone-lite lifestyle. I started leaving my phone at home for longer and longer periods of time. I would walk to the coffee shop down the street and not take my phone. Then I’d go to the grocery store. One weekend I drove up the pass to the mountains with my husband for the day and left my phone behind on purpose.
Pretty soon, a problem emerged: I never knew what time it was. I realized I needed a watch. I ended up purchasing one from eBay and waiting anxiously for it to arrive via snail mail. (Don’t worry: The irony of ordering an analog timepiece on the Internet isn’t lost on me.)
Then there was the issue of my work. I am a writer who relies almost solely on digital channels for my livelihood. Ninety-nine percent of my books sold are digital sales, and I rely on tools like Facebook and email for marketing. I write all my drafts in Scrivener. It’s not as though I could ever unplug permanently.
But I decided that I could do better. I’ve started writing more on paper before I dive into a manuscript on my computer. I’ve started sending more letters and fewer text messages. Instead of using a weather app (which I no longer have), I step outside, feel the temperature, and look at the sky. I’ve switched back to print books for my personal reading, and I even subscribe to a print magazine.
As I write this, I’m sitting in a coffee shop built in a tiny house. The table is roughly the size of a large pizza. There are six seats inside that look out on Bijou Street. I am the only customer.
At first I wondered how a coffee shop in the middle of downtown isn’t full at midday on a Thursday. There’s live music playing on the other side of the building and a farmer’s market in the square.
Then I asked for the Wi-Fi network and was informed that they didn’t have Wi-Fi. The mystery of the empty café was solved, but my inner Luddite rejoiced. There’s no better place for a writer to write than a café called Story Coffee Co. — especially if that café doesn’t have Wi-Fi.
I’ve started to think of my own digital dependence as a sickness. Can one ever make a full recovery? I think of my Facebook, my Instagram, my blogs, and the deeply disturbing amount of information I’ve given away since creating my first email address in the eighth grade. That email address still exists — a link to me and my personal data.
Honestly, it makes me sick to think about, and I don’t have a solution. The best I can do is take my dogs, leave the phone at home, and set out on foot — or take my husband’s clunky old SUV into the mountains where no cell towers can reach us. It’s an imperfect way to be off the grid, but it’s the best we can hope for in the era of constant digital tracking