My friend Jeff Reifman, a Web developer and activist freelance journalist, has been busy. His crusade calling attention to Microsoft's Washington state tax dodge has gained some traction, leading to an interview on public KUOW-FM [25 MB MP3] in Seattle.
Jeff's also featured in the new issue of Wired — though not for getting Bill Gates and company to pay their taxes. Jeff is a key figure in the fascinating tale of how Wired readers tracked down writer Evan Ratliff, who in August decided to see if he could vanish from the grid. It's a fun read. Ratliff sets it up:
The idea for the contest started with a series of questions, foremost among them: How hard is it to vanish in the digital age? Long fascinated by stories of faked deaths, sudden disappearances, and cat-and-mouse games between investigators and fugitives, I signed on to write a story for Wired about people who’ve tried to end one life and start another. People fret about privacy, but what are the consequences of giving it all up, I wondered. What can investigators glean from all the digital fingerprints we leave behind? You can be anybody you want online, sure, but can you reinvent yourself in real life?
On August 24, a former Microsoft group program manager in Seattle named Jeff Reifman read about the hunt in Wired. Reifman, self-employed these days, had recently launched a series of grant-funded Facebook applications to study the engagement of young people with the news. From a technical standpoint, the contest seemed intriguing.
On August 27, working on a desktop in his living room, he created Vanish Team, a Facebook app dedicated to information and discussion about Ratliff. He announced it on Twitter, and people began clicking over to check it out.
So begins days of Internet sleuthing. Jeff eventually tracks down Ratliff in New Orleans, where a pizza shop owner assisted on-location in the apprehension. They donated their reward money to charity.
And now Ratliff dispels my fantasy of thinking that if I ever had to vanish, I could:
Had I shown that a person, given enough resources and discipline, could vanish from one life and reinvent himself in another? I thought I had, though only up to a point. Obviously the smarts and dedication of the hunters had overwhelmed my planning and endurance. Along the way they’d also proven my privacy to be a modern fiction. It turns out that people — ordinary people — really can gather an incredible dossier of facts about you. But a month later, life was back to normal and no one was taking any interest.