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disappearing in the digital age

The author Evan Ratliff has gone missing. Wired magazine has put a bounty of $5,000 (£3,030) on his head. Wannabe private eyes have less than 30 days to track him down to his lair and turn him in.

Mr Ratliff is truly testing the ability to just simply disappear in an age of 24/7 connectedness and digital clues that litter our lives.

It's an intriguing project that at its heart aims to find out "what does it take to up and disappear these days? Not to head off the grid for a few days, mind you, but to actually vanish from your life?"

In a piece Mr Ratliff has written for Wired he explained that one of his inspirations was a chap called Matthew Alan Sheppard who at 42 devised a plan to disappear from the lives of his wife of 10 years and his 7-year-old daughter.

On a weekend away with his family, he jumped into a river as his wife watched and simply seemed to vanish. All searchers found at the time was his orange hat.

But not everyone was convinced he was dead and as the story in Wired reveals, it is the simple things that result in the unravelling of this tale.

Now Mr Ratliff is testing out how easy, or difficult , it is to go on the lam and see how long he can remain hidden at a time when digital information collection, location-aware technology and post 9/11 security measures are everywhere. Or certainly seem to be.

As Mr Ratliff noted "where once you could move a few states over, adopt a new name and live on with minimal risk, today your trail is littered with digital breadcrumbs dropped by GPS-enabled cell phones, electronic bank transactions, IP addresses, airline ID checks, and, increasingly, the clues you voluntarily leave behind on social networking sites.

"It's almost easier to steal an identity than to shed your own," he noted.

To make the chase a little more interesting, Mr Ratliff is dropping digital clues here and there. The magazine is scooping all its intelligence together and revealing IP addresses and other titbits to help anyone trying to track down Mr Ratliff close in on their prey.

While he says that "going on the lam is not like it used to be" Mr Ratliff wants to find out what the Matthew Alan Shepards of the world can't tell us: "how hard is it really, to disappear?"

The hunt is on and only time will answer that question.

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