As our online presence increases, so do the security risks to our private information.
In today’s world of mass surveillance and obsession with social media, Frank M. Ahearn’s job is to help people erase their digital footprint. Initially working undercover for private investigators, Ahearn discovered he had an amazing knack for tracking people. In the world before Internet, there was an underground of gray information, which he was an expert at navigating. But, as the laws changed, and personal information became easily available, Ahearn decided to turn the tables on his old job.
Ahearn offers a unique service to people who need to leave their current life behind, such as victims of stalking or domestic violence. He specializes in not only coordinating the process of physically removing oneself from the situation, but also by blurring one’s virtual identity so they can no longer be traced online. When his initial article on the subject, “How to Disappear,” was first published, it provoked a massive response from all over the world.
Ahearn is the author of many books regarding Internet security, including the upcoming How to Disappear From Big Brother: 21st Century Guide to Cyber Privacy.
In his own words: “It’s kind of weird and crazy, but that’s what I do.”
Anna Pivovarchuk: So a client calls you up. What is the first thing he or she asks you?
Frank M. Ahearn: Well, they email me. And it’s pretty much: “Hi, I need to disappear.” It’s always very cryptic. There’s never any real information.
And then it’s almost like a courting process: Why do you want to disappear? Who are you disappearing from? The answers fall into two categories: either money or violence. Violence means being a victim of a stalker, abusive ex or a bad business situation. And then there’s the money people: I’ve come into money and want to leave my world behind, or I lost it all. They are all looking for some sort of freedom. That’s the best way to put it.
But probably in the past year or so, a third type of person has come to me. I see more individuals who want to create more privacy and fall off the grid — not necessarily paranoid, but disenchanted with government, you can say.
I can say that 99% of the people who contact me I do not do business with.
Pivovarchuk: Why is that? What is your process for screening these people?
Ahearn: Those are the people who have hidden agendas (going on the run, trying to smuggle money out of the country), who think I can give them a fake identity — or a new identity — which is ridiculous, and totally illegal. So those people are right off the bat.
And then you have people who have real problems. The violence problems are the real problems, I consider. It’s a problem when you deal with a woman who has two kids — does she have full custody of those children? If so, I need to prove it.
And then you have the other thing when people can’t always disappear. You can’t be Joe, the bus driver in London, and Joe the bus driver in Berlin. It doesn’t work that way. You’ll be traced. So the object is: How do you take the mother of two, or a single person, and put them in a different place so they can make a living and are not traced by the predator. So it’s not such an easy process.
I call it the “palm tree lifestyle,” where everybody thinks they are going to wake up in this wonderful life, but they forget that most palm tree locations cost a lot more money than our regular lives. And just because you want to disappear or need to disappear, doesn’t mean you have the means. That is probably the biggest problem: How do you make money?
Someone like you can disappear easily because you can do what you do from anywhere in the world. You can write. But if you are a bus driver or a teacher, then you have some problems.
Pivovarchuk: So what is the actual process for helping someone disappear? What are the actual steps that you take?
Ahearn: Well, the important thing is: Who are you vanishing from and how much money do they have? Let’s assume it’s an abusive ex or a victim of a stalker. Stalkers are very creative, very persistent. So, what I do is try to get them to law enforcement. That’s the first avenue. Most people say: “I’ve done that, they’ve done nothing.” The problem is that just because you disappear, it doesn’t stop the predator from searching for you. And if they have a lot more money than you do, it’s problematic.
So what I do is, once we’ve figured out that you’re capable of going from A to B, I would tell you to start researching newspapers in Belgium and I want you to start sending out emails asking for a job. I want you to start looking for apartments for rent in Belgium. I want you to do the same thing in Oslo. With all your digital information at home, we start creating what I call “digital dirt.” And that pretty much means I am going to create digital information for your predator to find, because we have to assume that your predator has access to your phone records, your bank records, your IP addresses.
I used to be in the business of extracting private information, so I know that getting your personal information is only a phone call away. We have to assume the predator is doing things like that.
And then what I do, using social media and various stuff, is start creating a bogus online profile, as if you really exist in Oslo or Belgium — something like that. The goal is to give the predator something to look for and to keep them busy. Because if you don’t keep them busy, they just might find that real information.
To me, it’s about becoming a virtual entity: someone who has no connection to anything physical. If you move to, say, Berlin, you will not rent an apartment in your name — you are going to sublet it; maybe rent a vacation place for a while; you are going to use pay-as-you-go mobiles; you are going to use cash.
I also teach people how to communicate using third-party services. There are these massive websites, like oDesk, where you can rent personal assistants from all over the world. So, when you disappear, there are still people you need to keep in contact with, and I teach you how to communicate with your family or your editor using a third-party service, where they are checking your emails. If you need to do some research that can be traced back to you, they will do the research for you. So, it’s both creating digital misinformation and teaching you how to exist as a virtual entity.
And then I will spend a few days with you at your new location, and I walk you through the streets and point out the vulnerable points. As a writer, you can’t join writing groups, your hobbies will catch you. Your interests will catch you.
When somebody goes to a new town, I create something I call a “go bag,” where they set up a mail drop — there will be prepaid debit cards and a pre-paid cellphone. Because one day they are walking home and their predator happens to be sitting on their doorstep or across the street in a car, and going home will only get them hurt. So they go to their mail drop, they grab their go bag, and they pick up and split and have to start all over again.
Pivovarchuk: You mentioned that you used to extract private information. How vulnerable is that personal information?
Ahearn: Every “no” leads to a “yes.” It’s a matter of picking up the phone. It’s happening now with all the tabloids in the UK — that is the kind of work I used to do and I have done work for tabloids in the past. You basically pull phone records, bank records and airline records. It’s just a question of picking up the phone and creating a ruse or a pretext to convince the person on the other end that you need that information. And most people who work for customer service, their jobs suck. So, if you call them up and say: “Listen, I’m taking my kids on holiday and I just need to get reimbursed for my monthly expenses, so if we could just go over my phone records so I can turn them in and get paid.” Some people might know you can’t do that, but then other people are like: “Sure, no problem. What do you need?” It’s easy.
Well, one of the problems with social media is you don’t control the information that goes out there about you. Other people putting up information about you is one of the major issues. I mean, if I had a vendetta against you, I could ruin your life in a matter of two weeks by creating all this horrible stuff about you. That’s the danger of social media.
Pivovarchuk: Do you find that in recent years, especially following the NSA revelations, that people are more cautious about what they put online? Have you noticed a correlation between the Edward Snowden story and what you do?
Ahearn: In Europe, people are a lot more aware of privacy, but not in the US. We should be appalled at what the NSA is doing, but we are not. But what I think the difference is, in the UK, you have those cameras that are really big and they follow you on the street. See, in the US, we have small cameras. And all of our surveillance, we don’t notice. So people who email, text and talk seem not to realize there is a man behind the curtain grabbing the information.
Pivovarchuk: Well, the difference here is that on the one hand, the government monitors you for security purposes, or someone actively goes out of their way to mine for your personal information. So how does social media affect people’s exposure to all the dangers you were talking about?
Ahearn: Well, one of the problems with social media is you don’t control the information that goes out there about you. Other people putting up information about you is one of the major issues. Since we have no control over it, the truth about us, about who we are, can be changed or controlled by others. I mean, if I had a vendetta against you, I could ruin your life in a matter of two weeks by creating all this horrible stuff about you. That’s the danger of social media.
I’ve dealt with people whose children have seen horrible things about them. Some of them are true, some of them aren’t. We can’t decide truth online. The truth is, you read something and there is no way of knowing if it’s real or not. I think that’s the dangers of information.
Pivovarchuk: It’s pretty scary, especially with all the location services apps. Sometimes I wonder why people would so willingly advertise where they are, who they are with, and what they are doing.
Ahearn: What’s the point? What do all these apps want? They all want your location. It’s a matter of just collecting data. We live in a society where you wake up in the morning and you turn your light on — your electric company knows you’re awake. You sign in online — your Internet company knows this. You turn on your TV — they know what you watch. You leave your house — there is a camera in the elevator, there is a camera down the street, there’s a camera on the subway.
This is only the beginning of technology. Who knows where it leads? I am not a conspiracy theorist, I just think it’s obvious that access to us seems to be the most important part of technology.
Pivovarchuk: We have seen all the science fiction films, we know where it’s all going. They always get it right, don’t they?
Ahearn: It should be more like science non-fiction. It’s scary.
Pivovarchuk: How does what you do differ from the services that offer, say, positive branding online?
Ahearn: It’s hugely different. There is a difference between corporate branding and personal reputation. They do website suppression; they will create all this wonderful information about you, and put it out there. But the problem is, if you are using this service because you did something stupid six months ago, hiding it on page eight of Google doesn’t do anything. What I do is create deception where I take that stupid thing and, suddenly, instead of it being Anna from London who did it, it’ll be Anna from Lisbon. I take your bad reputation and give it to somebody else.
Pivovarchuk: So you basically create an online alias?
Ahearn: Fake digital identities, to a degree. It’s the only answer there is.
Pivovarchuk: So how do you go about images — profile pictures? Do you use fake photographs, or how does this work?
Ahearn: Sometimes I do. Sometimes I’ll give Anna in Berlin someone else’s face.
Pivovarchuk: Whose face would you use? Isn’t that a violation of their privacy too, in a way?
Ahearn: No, I pay them for the rights to the photo. They don’t necessarily know what it’s used for. There are millions of models out there who are willing to sign off the rights to their photo. I mean, listen, if you were a serial killer, I would not do that. If some horrible event took place or if some guy got accused of rape, I would never put another face to that. There is a boundary that I use.
Pivovarchuk: So where do you draw the line? Who would you refuse to work with?
Ahearn: Anybody with a sex crime. Because it is a he said, she said situation, and nobody knows the truth. I have been in business a long time and I need good karma in my life. There was a time in my life when it was all about the money, but it’s not about that anymore.
Pivovarchuk: How many people contact you a year?
Ahearn: I’d say several people a day. But of those: full pickup and go and disappear — I probably help four or five a year. Then the people who need to create more privacy, I would say overall I work with 10-15 people in a year’s time.
Pivovarchuk: What was the most unusual request you received?
Ahearn: They are all pretty weird. I shouldn’t say they are all crazy, but a lot of them are. This woman contacted me, saying her children are trying to take her money away because she was not mentally fit. You know, there are a lot of emails going back and forth and, before you and I meet, we have a phone conversation. She seemed normal. And so we met and she was telling me more of her story. And then she mentioned the eye in her computer. She started talking about the shadow people in the driveway. She went from normal to nuts, in a second. And she wanted to give me a deposit — she had $15,000 cash on her.
So I called the police, because I wanted someone to know that this woman had this cash, and I’m going, I don’t want to be responsible. She went ballistic, started yelling, “They got to me,” “You’re one of them” — total conspiracy theory stuff. And I really try to avoid the conspiracy theory people, because I don’t buy into that.
The reality is that rich people have always controlled the world. No different now, no different then. They don’t need conspiracies to control the world. So when people start mentioning conspiracies, I walk away.
Pivovarchuk: What’s your relationship with the police? Do you work with them sometimes?
Ahearn: No, they don’t pay. I am sure that some of the people who email me saying they want a new identity are former law enforcement. I am not doing anything wrong. I have a philosophy: If you want me to do something really wrong, you better give me millions and millions of dollars, so I can defend myself in the court of law in case it goes bad. People who email me wanting a new passport — I send them to the FBI.
Pivovarchuk: Give us some words of wisdom about how we should handle our private information.
Ahearn: You know my philosophy is: Don’t press the buttons. If you hit Enter, Send, or Download, you’ve created a digital footprint. Have somebody else to do it for you. And if you put it up there, it’s never going away. Digital information lasts longer than love. That’s just the way it is.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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