The idea of disappearing is one that has always fascinated me. In this guide, I share my own theories on how someone might pull that off in our hyperconnected world. I also explore the reasons why, the mistakes to avoid and whether going back is possible.
The recent data leaks from Facebook and a number of other major internet companies have shaken up a lot of people into taking their privacy more seriously. I have myself decided to get rid of my social media accounts, replacing them with services that are better aligned with my values. I have also decided to refrain from using my personal name on sites that can be indexed, using an alias instead. While I understand that this may sound excessive, personal experiences with profiling have convinced me that this is the right thing to do.
I am sure that I am not alone in this boat and that many others are looking into keeping their personal presence on the internet to a minimum. I can also imagine how, for some people, the idea of completely disappearing from the internet may be appealing. This will not be the focus of this guide, however, as I am sure few of my readers could imagine living their lives without the internet. Instead, the focus will be on disappearing from the public internet or, in other words, become very hard to track.
Our strategy will revolve around three pillars: tracking, discoverability and behaviour.
The first pillar, tracking, is an easy one. Any time you perform an action online, you should assume that some data about it has been recorded somewhere. Why the data is recorded is not the problem as 99% of the time it is for perfectly legitimate reasons such as analytics or security. Who recorded it and where it is stored is the problem. Indeed, many will be surprised to learn that few websites, apps and internet-connected services actually record and interpret tracking data in-house. Instead, most rely on services from the likes of Facebook and Google.
Individually, the data these services collect is fairly harmless. Once aggregated, however, it can be used to profile and track you with surprising accuracy. It gets even worse when you factor in the rates of improvement in machine learning technologies and the new use cases for such data (China’s social credit system, for example).
Preventing the collection of tracking data is currently not possible, at least if you want to continue using the internet in a normal and productive way. Making the data collected worthless and misleading is possible, however, and is our best solution to this problem.
Your first step should be to set up a VPS, with elastic resources, and remote desktop into it for all your browsing, social media and other internet activities. This will prevent your real location from ever being tracked while at the same time offering performance benefits when doing resource-intensive tasks such as video editing. Your second step should be to switch your search engine preference to DuckDuckGo. Search data is often used by the likes of Google to add contextuality and for ad targeting. You should also turn off predictive services in your web browser to prevent the collection of your browsing history. Without this data, tracking you will be more challenging. Your third step should be to switch to an encrypted email service. ProtonMail and Tutanota are my favourite options. Your fourth step should be to switch off diagnostic data collection for all the services you use, including Windows, MacOS and ChromeOS. Your fifth step should be to restrict the permissions that might allow apps to track you. This includes background data, location, access to contacts etc and it applies not only to your phone but also to your tablets and other computers. Your last step should be to sign up with a trustworthy VPN service and install their app on all your devices. You should configure it to only allow your device to connect to the internet via the VPN connection. You may also want to block most of your network ports for added security.
The second pillar, discoverability, is somewhat of a wildcard. How difficult it will be to implement it depends entirely on your circumstances and the amount and nature of your personal data that is already publicly available. The endgame here is to remove all of it to prevent someone from using it to track you. This includes not only information shared on social media but also information published on third party websites and blogs, photos indexed by search engines, mentions in the news, directories, government registers etc.
Your first step will be to find and list all of your publicly available personal data. You can use services like Deseat.me to facilitate the process. You should also Google yourself and search any register you suspect might store some of your personal data. Your second step will be to delete the data, either by yourself or via GDPR requests. When it is not possible to delete some data, you can try and modify it instead. Remove any identifiable information, anything that might link back to you (name, products, brands, location etc). Your third step will be to monitor the removal of the data from the search engines. This will likely take months, years in some cases. Your fourth and last step will be to set up alerts so that you are notified immediately if any new personal data is found. I recommend using an automation service for this, Zapier being my favourite.
The third pillar, behaviour, may well be the most important of the three. Even if you properly implement the first two pillars, services like Google will still be able to track you thanks to your online behaviour. For example, they may not know that you are in Hong Kong from your location data but they will be able to hazard a guess from your HKD exchange rate lookup on a Google Analytics-enabled Android app and your hotel booking on a Google Adword-enabled website. There are no specific steps here, you simply need to always be cautious. Use your browser’s developer tools to see if the websites you are visiting are using external tracking services. Avoid using Android phones unless you know how to secure them. Avoid creating obvious patterns. Think not only of what is possible today but also of what will be possible tomorrow. The data that is recorded will likely be used as part of future tracking systems, systems that will likely be better at interpreting it.
Remember, this is not only about protecting your privacy today but also about protecting your access to future opportunities in a world where your data may be used in ways that we cannot yet imagine.
Putting the past behind
The idea of putting the past behind, packing up never to return again, is one that I am sure everyone has considered at some point in their lives even if never seriously. It may be to escape shitty circumstances, domestic violence, overwhelming debt, professional or personal mistakes etc. It may also be to simply start anew, to escape boredom, for the adventure of it. Regardless of the reason, it is important to keep in mind that no laws should be broken nor should any bridges be burned here. This is not a full-on disappearance, it simply is a fresh start.
A solid strategy is indeed needed to make this fresh start a success. First and foremost, it should take your financial stability into consideration. It should also include clear plans for both your old and new lives. Obviously, you should also implement the digital disappearance strategy discussed above before getting started with the physical part otherwise you will be very easy to track down.
I cannot stress how important preserving your financial stability is in a situation like this. Without it, implementing the rest of the strategy will be very challenging, perhaps even impossible. That is not to mention the hit your quality of life would take.
How should you go about it? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, unfortunately, as it really depends on your circumstances. You will need to ensure that you can continue generating an income after your move, that this income will be sufficient to take care of your needs, that you will be able to access normal banking services and that you will be able to safely hold assets and investments.
Taking care of the income part will be a lot easier if you are already location independent. You may even be able to continue running your current business if you can ensure that no identifiable data can be obtained through it. For example, by moving it to a jurisdiction that supports anonymous registration, removing all personal data from its website, documentation etc and by using an alias instead of your real name. If you are not location independent, I strongly recommend that you become so. Not only will it make your move easier but it will also ensure that you can preserve your access to interesting business / career opportunities regardless of where you end up living. I have written a guide on the subject, you can read it here.
Taking care of the banking part will involve a lot of preparation and probably some travel as well. I recommend implementing a similar strategy to the one covered in my Ultimate guide to nomad banking. In any cases, I strongly recommend that you avoid banking in your home country as it would make tracking you ridiculously easy.
If you own assets that you cannot sell, consider transferring them to a trust or an opaque legal entity. Records of the transfers will likely exist, however, so take that into consideration.
Once your financial stability has been taken care of, your next step should be to build two distinct plans. One for your old life and one for your new life.
I recommend making a list of everything that attaches you to your old life. Everyone you know, even the far-off acquaintances, every account you have, every membership etc.
You will also have to take into consideration your future legal obligations. It is important that you file your tax returns on time, that you do not let your insurances lapse, that your drivers’ license remains valid etc. Do note that if you are a US citizen, you will have to file tax returns in the US for life even if you have moved to a new country and started anew. Not doing so would put your ability to return in jeopardy (or at the very least, make your return costly).
You will need a plan for each item on that list and the plan will have to be cohesive. Any mistake may be your downfall, any item that you neglected may lead to your old and new lives connecting. My advice when it comes to people is to simply stop initiating contact. Eventually, the majority will give up and stop contacting you. The more persistent family members and friends can be dealt with using other ways, you could even tell them directly that you plan to start anew and that you would rather not be contacted again.
Speaking of your new life, you will need a plan for that one too. Your plan should cover three different locations and scenarios, the second and third being backups. It should cover the essentials (housing, transportation, new licenses and permits etc) and the day to day stuff (how will you get the brands that you like, how will you deal with a potential language barrier etc).
Implementing your two plans will be tricky, make no mistake about that. Take your time and try not to deviate from what you initially planned.
If everything goes well with the implementation, you should shift your focus to long-term thinking. For example, you may want to acquire citizenship in your new country, do a legal name change etc. You may also want to start a family, something that will be tricky considering your situation.
If you think you made a mistake with this after trying it, do not be afraid to go back to your old life. Remember that there is no such thing as failure, only new experiences to learn from.
For those who find themselves downwind from the fan, when shit hits, the only option may be to burn all bridges and disappear completely. A full-on disappearance, Hollywood-style.
How you go about this will depend mainly on the reason(s) why you are considering such an extreme option. The reason(s) will also have a strong influence on your odds of success.
If time is on your side, your first step should be to implement some of the strategies discussed in the sections above. Moving your finances overseas will be especially important, disappearing from the internet also. You should ensure that everything is set up in non-aligned countries, preferably in the name of opaque offshore entities. You should also ensure that no direct transfer ever happens as this would create an obvious link. Be creative, unpredictable and remember to make things difficult and very costly for whoever is looking for you. An easy way to do this is via an information overload strategy. For example, instead of travelling to one country to open bank accounts, travel to thirty countries and open bank accounts in each of them. Instead of scouting one or two bugout locations, scout out a hundred. Plant false leads all over the place, make some of them more credible than others. Imagine the nightmare an investigative team would face tracking down leads in dozens of different countries, many with cultural and language barriers, hostile governments and dysfunctional law enforcement agencies. In other words build a solid, comprehensive plan. Do not let anything to chance and most importantly, do not try to improvise.
If time is against you, get as much cash as possible (in physical currency), get yourself to a major town and book an Airbnb under an assumed name (one that offers self-check in) for a period of at least one month. You can use prepaid gift cards to pay for the Airbnb (be careful when buying them, disguise yourself if possible). Once at the Airbnb, stay inside at all time. Use the gift cards to order groceries and anything you need but remember to instruct the delivery drivers to leave everything in front of the door (do not show yourself). Do not search for press reports about yourself, this may leave a trace that can be followed. Take the time to plan, to consider your future. When ready, leave the Airbnb and set everything in motion.
Once you have executed your plan and disappeared, never look back. Truly becoming a new person is the only way to make this work long-term.
It goes without saying that this type of disappearance is fairly extreme and should only be considered in rare circumstances. For example, if you are a journalist threatened by an oppressive government. If you have committed a violent crime and want to escape from its consequences, do not. Face the music, make amends and work on yourself. Running away would never bring you peace, and would prevent your victim(s) from ever having closure.