Ten years ago, there was a $5,000 bounty on the head of Evan Ratliff. Ratliff, then a journalist for Wired, had accepted a challenge: to vanish and reinvent himself under a pseudonym over the course of a month. (The exact dates were Aug. 15 to Sept. 15, 2009.) Ratliff’s editor was left with his social media profiles and banking information. Clues from these were gradually released so anybody could try their luck at tracking down the writer and winning the prize money.
The account of the decade-old, nationwide manhunt is worth revisiting, and inspires readers to muse about how they would carry out their own vanishing acts. To avoid detection, Ratliff changed his appearance and covertly traveled from city to city, but one of the most illuminating aspects of his experience was just how vulnerable he was made by his ordinary financial transactions. To conceal his location, Ratliff abandoned his regular credit or debit cards, which would’ve instantly tipped off his whereabouts, and instead relied on a combination of gift cards and cash.
We are never more connected to the information grid than we engage in digital commerce and it is alarming to realize just how easy it is to be followed, and how much information we expose, through our day-to-day purchases. Our routines are predictable and revealing, and they make us pawns for targeted advertising.
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