Google likely knows your age, gender, hobbies, career, relationship status, every YouTube video you’ve watched
Early one morning last year, before the birds were up, Tio Bucard, his wife and children skittered down the path from their home in a tiny French village towards a black SUV, its engine running. As Bucard drove to the local airport, he checked his rear-view mirror every few moments to see that he was still being followed by Frank Ahearn, a 54-year-old American with a peppery beard and wraparound sunglasses.
Bucard (not his real name) had met Ahearn for the first time only the day before, in the lobby of a Monaco hotel close to Bucard’s office. Now he had entrusted his family’s safety to this former drug addict from the Bronx. Bucard pulled into the airport’s long-term car park. Then he and the family transferred into Ahearn’s hired SUV. As they pulled on to the motorway, Ahearn joked whether, while the family was in hiding, he could look after Bucard’s £5,000 watch, a Bentley Flying B No 3.
The watch was a reminder of more plentiful times. Bucard, who raised capital for a private equity firm, had recently found himself on the wrong end of a bad deal. Problems gathered and the firm began to default on payments. One of the slighted investors had, as Bucard puts it, “a shady past” and angry phone calls soon blackened into threats of physical violence. Fearing for his and his family’s safety, Bucard typed the phrase “how to disappear” into Google. Halfway down the first page of results, he saw Ahearn’s name. A former New York skip tracer – a private investigator who finds people who have “skipped” town – turned professional “disappearer”, Ahearn offers a range of freelance services, everything from helping to restore your privacy on the internet to driving your family across Europe and into a new life.
“My idea was to go away for three to four months,” Bucard tells me. “Just until I could raise the funds to pay back my investors.” Not wanting to cause alarm, Bucard told his children they were taking an extended vacation. The day before they fled, Ahearn rented an Airbnb in a far-flung city in his name
. When the family arrived at the safe house, Ahearn bought new mobile phones and laptops, then schooled the family on the rules of their new life: do use untraceable text-messaging services; don’t use public email servers; do pay in cash; don’t use Facebook. After a few days, Ahearn left the Bucards in their temporary accommodation and returned to his home in Madrid, where he lives with his girlfriend. In his wallet, he carried Bucard’s credit card.
When he landed in Spain, Ahearn tried to imagine what a man of Bucard’s wealth might indulge in while on holiday. Then he began a riot of spending: fine clothes, meals out, a king’s ransom of trinkets. “I had a blast with his plastic,” he says. “And that, my friend, is how to leave a trail of super-cool disinformation.”
Money, violence, indiscretion: the motivation for any person who wants to disappear, either physically or digitally, usually wends back to one of these. Whatever the reason and whatever the scale of the ambition – from starting a new life in a foreign country to scrubbing one’s name and address from the phonebook – it has never been harder to vanish. In a world where almost any action outside your garden shed leaves some kind of digital footprint, there is no clear path back to the realm of the unknown.
In recent months, the scale of the erosion of our anonymity has become dauntingly clear. In humming, ice-cooled server farms, the monoliths of Silicon Valley gather fat troves of personal information. This much we have known for years – as early as 2010, an investigation found that Facebook apps were routinely collecting information for internet-tracking companies without our consent – even from private accounts. But the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal brought new clarity. Those who downloaded their personal data files found that Facebook and its associated apps had been tracking phone calls, reading messages and plundering phonebooks.
This gleeful, grasping attitude to our data is in the social network’s DNA. This year it was revealed that in 2004, while Facebook was still a university campus website on which male students could rate the attractiveness of female students, its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, sent an instant message to a friend in which he boasted that he had collected more than 4,000 emails, pictures and addresses of people who had signed up to the service.