How to Disappear in the Digital Age

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Frank Ahearn knows a thing or two about privacy. He's made a career of finding people, collecting debts, serving papers, locating spouses who've skipped town. Reverse-engineered, this has also made Ahearn something of an expert on disappearing, and led him to a new career helping people drop off the grid. In fact, he's written a book on it called, not surprisingly, ââ?¬Å?How to Disappear.ââ?¬  We tracked Frank Ahearn down in Portugal. It wasn't too hard finding you, Frank. I'm sure you could make it hard if you wanted to. Give us first your disappearing act rating for Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the NSA surveillance business. How's he done so far?

Frank Ahearn: Zero. He's put—first, thanks for having me—he had a, he didn't have a plan. He just picked up and split. And the problem is he's looking to depend on a country to take him in, and you can't always trust that country. I think if I was him, I would have just gone totally off the grid, disappeared for good.

Werman: So how do you actually make somebody disappear? How do you help them?

Ahearn: Well, the first question you always have to [answer] is how you going to make a living where you're going, and once we can figure that part out. The best example is like the victim of a stalker who needs to leave because her ex is going to kill her or something like that. When you're looking for somebody or looking to find someone you always look for the information they left behind so I kind of take that information and manipulate it, change her, deviate her name maybe on the utility company, you know, different forwarding addresses, different contact information, and then using online information for disinformation. You need to make sure that the person looking for them is looking in the wrong places. So they're looking for the information you left behind, so for example I would have them open up a bank account and give me the debit card, and I would take that debit card, send it to a friend of mine in Toronto, and every Tuesday they'd go and buy stuff at the supermarket. Plus, I'll have you apply for an apartment at a location online. It's important to keep the predator looking.

Werman: We had a science fiction writer on the program last week who said he does not use Facebook, and cautioned everyone about the voluntary information we fork over about ourselves on social media sites like Facebook. What are the easiest things people can do to protect themselves and their identities?

Ahearn: I think the most important thing to do is stop the social networking. And I agree with whoever the writer was. We don't know what this information is going to be used for, the NSA just might be utilizing it. I say, if you're in business I understand social media. I understand Twitter, I understand Facebook. But if you're a regular person, you wouldn't put a billboard on the side of the road with your picture up and your kids' pictures and what school you went to and your home phone number. Why do it online? I look at information like gold, okay. And if you had gold, you wouldn't just give it away that easy. And that's the way I see it.

Werman: You ever wanted to disappear yourself, Frank?

Ahearn: Every day of my life. You know, I'm in such a crazy, crazy business. You know what I'm saying? And I see this as like a limited run and eventually I'll just find my way out of it and drift off to someplace I want to be.

Werman: Frank Ahearn, privacy expert, author also of "How to Disappear." Frank, you going to disappear on us now?

Ahearn: Thank you very much, man, have a great day.

Werman: Okay. Thanks, you too.

Ahearn: Bye.