National Geographic Daily News
Two people ride a horse-drawn cart in Novosilky, Ukraine.

Fugitives who wish to jump off the grid could start by traveling to Novosilky, Ukraine, without leaving a paper trail.

Photograph by Maria Danilova, AP

Melody Kramer

National Geographic

Published June 25, 2013

Edward Snowden's journey around the world has taken him from Hawaii to Hong Kong, and now to Moscow.

The 30-year-old former NSA contractor, who leaked highly classified information about the U.S. government's surveillance programs, left Hong Kong on Sunday on a flight headed to Moscow.

On Tuesday, Russia's President Vladimir V. Putin confirmed that Snowden was in a transit area at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport and had not broken any Russian laws. Putin's press conference was held hours after Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Snowden had not crossed the border into Russia.

Snowden reportedly booked a flight from Moscow to Havana on Monday. He didn't show up for the flight. Another Havana-bound flight took off from Moscow on Tuesday, without Snowden aboard.

Snowden's no ordinary traveler. But his globe-hopping around the world made us think: Would it be possible for someone without his connections—in our increasingly connected age—to travel undetected?

Turns out, the answer is probably not.

"Snowden could do this because he had a lot of help," said Norie Quintos, executive editor of National Geographic Traveler. "I think for a typical traveler, it would be very hard to do."

It's a felony to use false identification, so you don't want to go that route. Instead, it's better if you just make it really, really hard for people to track you down, said Frank M. Ahearn, author of How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, and Vanish without a Trace.

Ahearn spent over 20 years working as an investigator tracking down people who don't want to be found. He then realized he could make more money helping people who wanted to disappear—actually leave without a trace.

But it's much harder said than done. So we asked Ahearn, who currently splits his time between New York and California, about the best ways to disappear—Snowden-style or otherwise.

So I'm a 28-year-old writer living in Washington, D.C. I want to get out of here—maybe start something new. What's my best bet?

How much money do you got?

Let's say it's unlimited. (Writer's note: It's not.)

If you have unlimited money, then the world is your oyster. You probably want to head to Eastern Europe because of the language barrier. But it really depends on who is looking for you. You could cross into Mexico and once you cross, you're home free. There are small towns in Central and South America that are off the grid. It really depends on how crafty you are and what limits you have. It's a very different type of living that exists in those places.

I've heard of Mexico and South America, but why Eastern Europe?

It's much harder to find a person in Croatia or the Ukraine because their infrastructure is a whole lot different than ours. You don't need any kind of identification or numbers linking you to accounts like electricity, for example. And if the person looking for you has to start in the Ukraine, they just wouldn't know where to start.

What if I didn't have unlimited money?

Then you want to live more off the grid. You could go to Vegas, work off the books as a waitress, use prepaid cell phones. Being a woman, it would be easier to hook up with some guy and have everything in his name. It's not the most fun way of living, but it's doable. You could also probably couch surf and float city to city with no problem.

So if I stayed on the down-low and shifted from city to city, I'd be okay?

Well, most people get busted for something else. They contact someone from their past. When we're looking for someone, we're looking for the information they left behind: a call to a grandmother or a call to a sister. You kind of have to leave that world behind. The most important thing is making money to survive.

What about all of the social media I use? I'm on Twitter and Facebook, and I use that to stay in touch with basically everyone in my life. Would I have to leave those?

Deleting social media actually serves no purpose. But what you can do is create disinformation. People don't realize this, but they actually search for things that can be used to find them from their home computers. So what you want to do is, say, plan to go to Las Vegas. But in the meantime, Photoshop some pictures of you in Wisconsin. Call Wisconsin from your home phone for jobs. Post lots of things on Facebook about Wisconsin. This is all for the person that's looking for you—you want to keep them busy and have them think you're in Wisconsin.

But I'm not in Wisconsin.

Yes, but there's no reason you can't create a series of fake online identities based in Wisconsin and friend them on Facebook. And then they can talk about having lunch with you in Wisconsin. You create this whole world of friends who are confirming your life in Wisconsin.

This kind of makes me want to move to Wisconsin. It seems like I would have a lot of friends there.

Yes, but they wouldn't be real.

What about a new identity? Why can't I just get some papers and become someone else entirely?

New identities don't work. Back in the day, you could get a birth certificate without any kind of problem because Social Security didn't cross-reference with the death record index. But [Social Security has] gotten much better.

So what you're telling me is the best way to disappear is really just to lie and fall off the grid, without trying to draw much attention to myself?

Well, sure, but really, it just depends on who's looking for you and how much money they have. If they want to find you, they probably can.

6 comments
Joshua Grote
Joshua Grote

As far as I know, this was the most poorly written article in the history of National Geographic. 

Sandra Twiss
Sandra Twiss

"You probably want to head to Eastern Europe because of the language barrier". Really? As far as I know, pretty much everyone knows a bit of English in here. I'm an Eastern European and I don't seem to have a problem with it, nor do most of my friends and acquaintances. I think almost everyone in Europe knows English.

Lee Carey
Lee Carey

One important option that is overlooked is if you have citizenship in more than one country.  Being a dual national makes it much easier because not only if there the option of having 2 passports, but some countries provide you with a 2nd birth certificate (i.e., being born in the US, I have both a US birth certificate, but also a "certificate of foreign birth" from my other country of citizenship, since one of my parents was a citizen there).  The US govt is not aware of 2nd passports in many cases (no requirements to declare them if you only use your US passport for US Customs) and they are perfectly legal (as mine is) because the US has a treaty with my mother's homeland that allows dual nationality.  Bonus: if your 2nd citizenship is with an EU country, then you're set for paperwork and the ability to get a job, housing, etc.

Lee Carey
Lee Carey

One important option that is overlooked is if you have citizenship in more than one country.  Being a dual national makes it much easier because not only if there the option of having 2 passports, but some countries provide you with a 2nd birth certificate (i.e., being born in the US, I have both a US birth certificate, but also a "certificate of foreign birth" from my other country of citizenship, since one of my parents was a citizen there).  The US govt is not aware of 2nd passports in many cases (no requirements to declare them if you only use your US passport for US Customs) and they are perfectly legal (as mine is) because the US has a treaty with my mother's homeland that allows dual nationality.  Bonus: if your 2nd citizenship is with an EU country, then you're set for paperwork and the ability to get a job, housing, etc.

Xira Arien
Xira Arien

Time was, in this country, if you screwed up on the East coast you could go out west and get another chance at life. 

Now, with all the technology that tracks our every eyeball movement and stores all that data forever, and with anyone being able to access anything about our past, we are followed for life by the worst thing we've ever done.

Is a guy who drove drunk when he was a young impressionable teen doomed forever to be judged as an irresponsible alcoholic loser? Yes they are, and they should not be.

We need more forgiveness in the human spirit. Since we can't change human nature to make that happen, we need to restrict the right of people to go digging around in people's past, especially their criminal record. What you've done should be between you and the government and no-one else.

Visit my blog, the liberal leaning libertarian, at http://llltexas.com

Uchi Khaleel
Uchi Khaleel

@Joshua Grote  Agreed!! Never thought NatGeo would let something like this happen!!
:(
Whats the world coming to???

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