From mobile phones to CCTV, not to mention social media and the internet, becoming digitally invisible takes some doing
Idiot! My phone has an IMEI number, whereby it can be traced anywhere in the world. I had to stop using the phone. Twitter told me that, before I had to stop using Twitter.
But that’s not enough; I also had to stop carrying the phone, or if I had to carry it, to do so in a metal-lined wallet. Documentally (his online persona), aka Christian Payne (his real-life name), is a professional surveillance-avoider who offers calm advice that will leave you paranoid, but with a completely foundationless faith in your capabilities: “I got an RSID wallet so that my passport details couldn’t be stolen remotely …” (The design of passports has been changed, so details can be read from a distance). “It’s meant to be for border crossings, but it’s leaking information all over the place. So I use the wallet with a metal lining, and if I put my phone in there, it remains completely off-grid.”
As an aside, to illustrate how easy it is to find you via your phone, he adds: “I’ve got old iPhones that I use for tracking devices. I’ve got one in my car. This technology is on a consumer level. For a very brief period I was running a little private investigations company. I could leave a Nokia on a table and it would become a bugging device for that room.”
Huh. Anyway, back to me. What I need is a burner phone – in the US, you can buy them from this the website (https://www.burnerphone.us/) and they arrive, fully charged, sim at the ready, no questions asked. “How do you pay for it?” you’re asking. Almost all conundrums end with this question: if you have a long time to plan going underground, my number one tip is that you save a lot of cash, or get really good at stealing.
The best way to pay for things on the internet without identifying yourself is by Bitcoin (an anonymous digital crypto currency). But you could also go to Tesco and just buy a phone, for a tenner, with a pay-as-you-go sim already in it.
“But who are you going to call?” Documentally asks pleasantly. If I call any known associates, their phones will be tracked anyway, and a strange mobile number will immediately show up. Even in my wider circle, calling three of them would join enough dots to come back to me. It’s possible that I could call a switchboard and get away with it, so that leaves me with a) work and b) British Gas. If I wanted to speak to one of my friends, I’d have to post them a letter, tell them my new number and get them to call me from a payphone. Or I’d have to buy them a burner and drop it off at their house. “You have to think in terms of not seeing or speaking to anyone you know for three years,” Documentally clarified.
At this point, 10pm on a Tuesday, I am still thinking in terms of a hypothetical person or agency chasing me. Not yet realising how absurdly unrealistic that was, I spoke to David Bond, who made a documentary about this quest three years ago, called Erasing David. During the film, he met Frank Aherne, “an expert at disappearing people in the States. I didn’t put him in the film because it sounded way too paranoid, but he told me the CIA had a backdoor into Google and Facebook. He went further, he said they have a start-up fund, and they put money into Facebook and things like it, to get in on the ground floor. I love that story. I wish I’d put him in.”
Social media notwithstanding, the “leakiest bit is definitely physical. The best thing you can do is wear a hi-vis jacket and carry a bin bag with something heavy in it, and you keep your head down. No one looks at you, everyone ignores you; you’re the lowest of the low.”
That’s how to avoid the human eye; CCTV is a completely different thing. Documentally developed a prototype, an infrared LED in the brim of a baseball cap that messes with the signal. The problem is that it creates a big flash, so even if they can’t see your face, it draws attention to your presence. But there are things you can do to confuse facial recognition algorithms: mainly, obscure your nose-brow bridge and disturb the ocular area. The first you can do with a directional scenester fringe. I don’t have one of those. The second you can do with makeup on your cheeks – if you create a blusher look that could, by a computer, be mistaken for an eye socket, that will completely mess with the reading.
I went for a cycling mask, which is fine in one way – I have to cycle anyway, even if you swap Oyster cards with a stranger (you should swap regularly with friends regardless, to mess with the data collection). That isn’t the problematic bit; cycling in a mask, with a longer fringe, might work. But if there is any agency looking for you, you have to get out of the city.
Documentally counsels: “There are maps online showing the lowest concentration of CCTV cameras. Camping’s good. People ask very few questions at campsites. But no technology, because there’s usually only one road in, and once they’ve found you, you’re found.” He paused. “Good luck,” he said. “If you check my twitter feed, you can see where I am. If you get into any trouble, come there. I don’t know you well enough to let you into my room, but I can find you a safe house.” I am tickled pink that he thinks I’m going to start roaming about the country. But I can’t do that: I’ve got two children; and also, tickets to see the Breeders.
I scale down my ambition: I merely want to live my life and leave no digital fingerprint. If I were pursuing a course of action that I thought might one day interest the authorities – joining a protest group, establishing a guerrilla army for the protection of bees – could I do so without leaving a yellow brick road directly to my house?
So, I couldn’t use a phone in the regular way, but I could Gibberbot (on an Android) or Chatsecure (on an iPhone). I could use Jitsi instead of Skype. For emails, I’d get a laptop that is stripped off – if you use your own, even not using your own email address, your identity screams off it like a siren the minute you connect to the internet … in your browsing history, the amount of RAM, the configuration, the homepage. But you can use an encrypted channel in a Virtual Private Network. “With a VPN and Jitsi you’d be anonymous but your friends who you were talking to would need a Jabber account. But that wouldn’t be too difficult. You’d just post them a letter, telling them to open one.”
My life at this point – late on Wednesday – had become so pared down, such a simple process of cycling around, giving words written in internet cafes, on memory sticks, to people, scaring them with my sweaty face – that the only emails I need a Jabber account for are my mum and one friend. I don’t really want to ask my mum to open a Jabber account, since the last time I looked at her computer, she was trying to download the whole of Arabic. She’s probably already on a watchlist. Then I remember I’m seeing her at Pilates; nobody would look for me there, it’s so 2001. When I run into her, she says: “Have you tried DuckDuckGo? It’s like an uncorruptible Google.” I think: “Jesus, woman, no wonder you’re probably on a watchlist.”
I solve the friend problem by just turning up at her house. She looks at me like I’ve taken a crap in a bag of sugar. People in London hate it when you do this.
It is such full-time work just avoiding email and phones that I can’t say I missed them. I did go to the Breeders, they scanned the barcode on the tickets, but hah! I didn’t buy them (my boyfriend did. It is a relatively easy trail, from him to me, I imagine).
Consuming, belonging, conforming – they are so intertwined, to reject one is to reject all three, to reject all three is just impossibly large. To do it, you’d need to have already done it. But the alternative, this supine acceptance of whatever information whoever wants it has, that’s not great either. As Documentally says: “If, for example, our government takes a turn for the even worse and wants to get any bit of dirt on you, all they have to do is amplify the things that they found in your inbox. It doesn’t take much to embarrass you or blackmail you.”
Source: Guardian News