Vanishing In A Digital Age: Lessons From Evan Ratliff

Posted 04 Dec 2009

Like many privacy minded individuals, I got a kick out of Wired Magazine editor Evan Ratliff's experiment to Vanish for 30 days. Even though it was a contest and there were many things that he did intentionally to leave some kind of a trail behind, much like what happens to many people who try to vanish, what he did that worked and what he did that didn't work are very illuminating to those who really want to vanish without leaving a trace.

Evan was unfortunately caught a few days shy of his 30 day goal. Even more unfortunate is the idea that has perpetuated since the contest, one that many people have mentioned to me since the contest was over, that you simply cannot vanish and maintain a presence on the internet.

This is not entirely true. I have addressed in previous articles almost every tool and technique that would have helped a person avoid the actual mistakes Evan made and which would have kept Evan from being discovered for the entire 30 days or even for 30 years.

Many more of those tools and techniques are available in the book How to Vanish, Legally Protecting Personal and Financial Privacy to create a complete strategy for personal privacy.  Here are the things that can be learned from the Vanish contest to make a vanishing act last longer than 30 days.

Resources Allocated To Finding You

Evan Ratliff publicized his Vanish contest to his readers. Doing this brought lots of attention and got people to allocate their time and talents to the search, a lot of people. The more resources allocated to finding you, the harder it will be to vanish, but it is still possible (think bin Laden).

Don't make your intention to vanish without a trace known to thousands of people. Ok. It was a contest rather than a true attempt to vanish, so Evan could not have followed this piece of advice, but you can. Being discreet about vanishing keeps resources from being allocated to search for you.

If your intention is to vanish because of serious criminal behavior, you will hopefully have a very difficult time vanishing because lots of powerful government and other resources will be deployed in your search. If you are vanishing for honest reasons, the same level of resources will probably not be allocated to locating you and you will find it easier to vanish.

Personal Profiling Of Every Day Habits

Using cash instead of credit cards was an excellent method of maintaining his privacy in the short term. Evan allowed others to access his bank account statements, credit card statements, email and other personally revealing information, much like the access a private investigator would have if they were following you.

This kind of access would have been significantly limited if his bank accounts were in countries which have strong bank privacy laws.

Had he not used cash, his trail would have been completely exposed within hours. His weakness was that Evan has not practiced privacy principles of anonymous transactions his entire life.

From his historical spending habits and other readily available personal information, followers were able to compile a profile which helped searchers discover Evan's alias Facebook and Twitter accounts, which kept the trail of his general whereabouts warm, and eventually led them to the gluten free pizza place, Naked Pizza, in New Orleans where he was finally found (his gluten allergy was one of those bits of personal information that was a key piece of evidence to find him).

If you continually practice good privacy habits like anonymous web surfing, using cash in transactions, avoiding consumer databases , not receiving mail at your residence, and others, your personal profile will be very difficult to piece together in any way that might be incriminating. The longer you have been following good privacy principles to partially vanish, the easier it will be for you to completely vanish.

Social Media Missteps

Evan Ratliff created new social media profiles using some real pictures of himself and used those to leave clues about his whereabouts. Even though his profiles were sometimes "secure", he still added contacts that were people and groups that were relative strangers to him.

Followers of Evan contacted many of those casual acquaintances after suspecting that the profile might have belonged to Evan (the fact that there was such tight security on the accounts actually raised suspicion). They also created their own fake profiles to try and get Evan to connect with them through the social media sites.

Those acquaintances, and the fake connections produced information that led to his "capture."


As I have mentioned before, social media can be useful if used wisely. Having the desired privacy settings on your account is a good start. The critical part that Evan did not do, in part because he wanted to make the contest fair, was was to screen social media connections, allowing only people that you trust sufficiently with the information that you give them to become part of his network. Only connect with people if you are sure that you know who is behind the profile.

Anonymous Web Surfing

Evan did, on occasion, use free anonymizing software like Tor, to try and hide his actual physical location. He also used wireless internet regularly. These were excellent steps which did in fact conceal his location. He did not use it enough.

Even though his use of proxy servers did disguise his actual location, he did not always use it while using his fake social media accounts, which some people discovered belonged to him. This allowed his followers to narrow his location to one metropolitan city and eventually to his gluten free meal location.

Tor is an excellent free tool to hide your IP address and was very effective for Evan. Other anonymous web surfing tools can be easier to use and offer more privacy. The more you use these tools, the better you will become at operating anonymously and the more difficult it will be to gather your personal information.

Even if there are websites that you would be expected to visit, which a good investigation would be monitoring to see if they can figure out which IP address is yours, anonymous web surfing will probably keep them from discovering that you are even visiting those sites, let alone your actual location.


Evan Ratliff's contest was a lot of fun to follow. He did a good job at vanishing for almost 30 days, even with his intentional clues. The conclusion that many people have drawn from the contest, however, is wrong. If you follow good privacy practices discussed on this website, you can vanish in a digital age and still maintain a web presence.

  In fact, this web presence allows you to save a lot on taxes if you are able to domicile yourself in one of the tax free states, even if you spend all of your time on the road like Evan.