On August 15th, 2009, Evan Ratliff, a freelance writer for WIRED magazine went missing. On purpose. He wanted to see if one could disappear into the ether in an age where we are surveilled, swiped, and social security numbered to death. Where our IPs are tracked and we willingly give information about our lives through social networking.
In a recent issue of the magazine, Ratliff recounted his attempt to change identities alongside the mad pack of tech savvies who were trying to find him (and earn a bounty of $5,000).
It’s in that spirit that I wanted to see what we could learn from films about the subject of leaving your life behind and creating a new identity.
1. Double Back
The Film: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
The Lesson: One of the first things Ratliff does is allow a toll checkpoint to register his ID tag before tossing it out the window, doubling back through side roads, and heading in a different direction. In fact, he leaves false clues all over the place by smartly using his personal debit cards to put trackers hot on the wrong trail. Cue Indiana Jones (who curiously shows up later as Dr. Kimball…) when he and his father escape from the Nazis by setting a power boat loose to make it look like they’ve made a water escape. They don’t quite give enough time for their chasers to get out to sea, but it’s still a solid diversionary tactic.
2. Don’t Call From Where You’re Calling From
The Movie: Taken
The Lesson: In addition to setting up false trails, Ratliff also set up a computer system in a city he had no intention of staying in and ran his IP through it, envisioning a group bursting into a doorway to find a bare room and a modem smiling back at them. This happens in countless films since, as we all know, tracing programs take mere seconds to work. One of the most recent examples comes from Taken where Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills sets up a cell phone next to a walkie talkie in order to make a safe call. Low tech and effective. If you absolutely have to twitter, mask your location.
3. Just For Men – Your New Best Friend
The Film: The Fugitive
The Lesson: Ratliff may have taken a few cues from the good Dr. Kimble because he wastes no time in changing his appearance using a handy bottle of dye. He, like Kimball, also shaves his beard, but seems to have absolutely no desire in finding a one-armed man. The hard lesson here is that you won’t always get to look your best. Blending in might mean sacrificing some vanity (and a really sweet beard).
4. A Quick Change of Clothes
The Film: Enemy of the State
The Lesson: Related to the last entry, changing your appearance means more than just donning eyeglasses, trimming your nose hair and smearing shoe polish all over your face (I’m looking at you, Gene Wilder in Silver Streak). It sometimes means changing your clothes completely, especially if they are full of bugs and tracking devices that rogue members of the NSA are using in order to find and kill you. A handy hotel robe should do the trick.
5. Cash Only
The Film: The Stepfather
The Lesson: Using a credit card is like shining a huge spotlight on yourself. You might be able to get away with getting false documents and setting up a new life, but if you can’t figure out how, working jobs for under-the-table cash is the best way to go. Despite not being a great movie, Dylan Walsh’s character in The Stepfather teaches us that as soon as you go legitimate, you start leaving a paper trail. Plus, it’s not like you can snort coke through a direct deposit stub.
6. Fake It ‘Til You Make It
The Film: Catch Me If You Can
The Lesson: One thing that Ratliff fails to do is create a new life (considering that he was only experimenting for a month), but Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale Jr. becomes a doctor, a lawyer, and an airline pilot through sheer charm and improvisation. It may seem impossible in this paranoid modern age with ID cards and background checks, but the age has also given us photoshop and a great many means to falsifying professional references (as a recent episode of “30 Rock” displayed). More so than that, being confident can be the best lesson to learn no matter how or why you choose to change your identity. Pretend you know what you’re doing and, suddenly, you will.
7. Fake It ‘Til You’re Dead
The Film: You Only Live Twice
The Lesson: If you have a ton of people looking for you, one of the most extreme ways to keep the trail cold is to let your body go cold, too. We have much to learn from master spy James Bond, but the man takes it to the next level in You Only Live Twice when he fakes his own death and deep sea burial. Want to get away forever? Start with a clean slate.
8. Burn It All Down
The Film: Into the Wild
The Lesson: Evan Ratliff could never commit at this level since he needed to return to his world after a month of hiding out. If you’re really serious about leaving everything behind, then leave everything behind. Burn your money, your social security card, grab a backpack and head out into the wilderness. But be prepared for the loneliness. Even when he was rolling around the country, hunted by strangers, Ratliff wrote about how desperately lonely he felt sometimes simply because starting a new life comes with the added downside of leaving everything warm, comfortable and loving behind. Even if you aren’t headed for the wilds of the Alaskan winter, starting a new life from scratch comes at a price.