Friday, September 25, 2009

And for my Next Trick

So picture this: Your job sucks, your over-worked, over-extended, under-paid, unappreciated and in debt up to your eyeballs. Your relationship is self-destructing and is quickly becoming toxic. You just want out. Now.

We have all been there on some level. And as things are crumbling down on top of you, we think about how great it would be to just disappear, go totally off the grid and start fresh someplace else with a new identity.

Easier said than done, unless your plan is to become a mountain man and life off the land.

Nevertheless, it is a tempting idea – and one that Mathew Alan Sheppard thought was his best option when he realized he was being investigated in connection with a massive extortion case. So in mid-February, he faked his own drowning and vanished, successfully living under the radar for nearly six months. But it all came undone when he started to miss his family, and the authorities used Sheppard's communication with his wife to track him down in South Dakota.

So Wired Magazine’s Evan Ratliff took this as a challenge. He wanted to see if he could go off the grid, living a “normal” life under a new identity – and whether today’s technology would make this easier or more difficult. His editor acted as the “lead detective,” feeding readers only clues actual law enforcement would have, and offering a $5000 award to whoever could locate Ratliff. His entire experience is documented here.

Ratliff left New York, altering his physical appearance and creating alternate online personae on Facebook and Twitter to evade the growing crowd hoping to find him. He posted contradictory and misleading messages, disguised his IP address, arranged fake UPS deliveries and even deceptively used his EasyPass. But it was his online footprint that was ultimately his undoing. His hunters organized on Facebook and Twitter to stitch together bits of information he left around the web to ultimately track him to a gluten-free pizza parlor in New Orleans. He describes the chase here in a great interview on NPR’s On the Media.

So what does this mean for us – those who will only fantasize about quitting life? Well, a lot actually. Ratliff was undone by a series of details he left on the web, such as his love of “The Great Gatsby” and his allergy to wheat. And we can similarly undo ourselves if we’re not aware of our digital footprint and what is out there for everyone to see. What was once heard as a parental admonishment to clean up your MySpace page, is being heard far and wide across industries and age groups. Recently the Journal of of the American Medical Association released a study showing that medical students are increasingly “unprofessional” on social networking sites

Teyana Taylor may have over-simplified it with her single “Google Me Baby,” but that is the long and the short of it. In today’s networked society, we are all findable, and whatever we put on the web stays on the web.

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