North Wind And Sun

Amherst Bytes: How to Make a Rabbit Disappear (and Appear Again) in a Digital World

Posted in Amherst Bytes by Ricardo Bilton on 7-December-2009

Originally published 2 December 2009 in The Amherst Student

Back in August, “Wired” writer Evan Ritliff undertook what is likely to be one of the more surprising and engaging endeavors in recent memory: wondering what it would take to disappear in a world of constant digital breadcrumbs, Ratliff decided to attempt the impossible  – or at least the exceedingly difficult  – task of doing just that. On the evening of Aug. 19, with just his car, a handful of cash and a new, F. Scott Fitzgerald-inspired pseudonym, Ratliff disappeared into the San Francisco sunset.

The rest is well-documented history. Ratliff’s disappearance wasn’t as quiet of a slip-into-the-shadows vanishing as the notion of a spontaneous disappearance might suggest. Instead, his calculated withdrawal from society was engineered with thoughts of pursuit in mind. Ratliff didn’t particularly want to disappear –  he was in fact very much interested in getting caught – but his undertaking was imbued with the implications of what that nabbing meant.

I’ll spoil the story for you: he gets nabbed. With an army of very intent and dedicated amateur sleuths at his heels, it was only inevitable. It happens in New Orleans. Ratliff is sporting a bald head and fedora. Ratliff, who had remained a mere few steps ahead of his pursuers throughout the whole process, hid beneath the veil of digital anonymity, shedding his previous exterior in favor of his new, constructed one. He had a Twitter account (username @jdgatz) a Facebook profile and his own business. The whole process, which ended just over a month after it began, proved that, with enough determination and cash, one could, theoretically, disappear.

But the tale likewise lends itself to another conclusion, one that Ratliff himself points out in the concluding paragraphs to his article in the December issue of “Wired”: the brunt of the detective work was performed by legions of organized detectives and pieced together via components that were already there –  IP addresses, phone call records, surveillance camera footage and, yes, even Google search results.

The existence of the latter, of course, points to an obvious truth. Google, which prides itself on doing an admirable job of organizing the world’s information, naturally does a good job of organizing your information. These are your online traces, your bits, the supposedly private digital traces of your digital and not-so-digital life. Nowadays, that distinction is moot. One wonders, sometimes out loud, oftentimes not so much, what it would take to de-Google, to return to stage one with a completely blank e-slate with just a name and no paginated strings attached.

Some venture to find out, albeit in slightly different way. Rupert Murdoch, prominent owner of all things old-fashioned, not too long ago, and in between incoherent cries of “get off my lawn,” argued that Google was the source of the newspaper industry’s travails. Those damn kids, Murdoch noted, his breath smelling conspicuously of prune, aren’t paying for our content. Murdoch, likely thinking louder than he would have liked, then threatened that if Google didn’t pay News Corp. for indexing its work, the corporation’s content would not appear in Google search results. While Murdoch’s threats were predictably empty, and revealed an expected ignorance of the robots tag, recent rumors seem to lend them some veracity. Some Internet speculators have suggested that Microsoft may enter the fray by paying News Corp. to remove its search results from Google and instead allow the company to list its content exclusively on Microsoft’s Bing search engine. This, our venerable Internet oracles suggest, would offer newspapers a significant stream of revenue, and, to Microsoft’s delight, violently pluck feathers from Google’s otherwise unblemished plumage.

And perhaps it is here that we can draw our connection. Unlike the great majority of us, Murdoch has enough clout that he can effectively twist’s Google’s arm, offering a somewhat cockamamie ultimatum to one of the most influential companies of all time. Just imagine if we could do the same. If the key to securing our digital traces is to remove them from those parties that harvest them, perhaps staking our claim is all that we can do. Hell, it would be icing on the cake if Microsoft paid us to do it.

Of course, there are two parts to this. One, it’s just as likely that we can do more to protect our sensitive information by just not putting it out there in the first place. Many of our online mistakes enter our consciousnesses via indiscriminate Facebook tagging, not to mention poorly-executed (and potentially alcohol-induced) tweets and status updates. It’s obvious how this can be curtailed.

The second half of the equation is more or less out of our control. As more and more of our daily functions become more and more digitized, it’s inevitable that there will be breaches of trust, leaks of information. Information is the commodity of the 21st century. Controlling it, harvesting it and selling it are rapidly becoming more and more important than perhaps, you might say, even matters of life and death.

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