Photo of Wired writer Evan Ratliff courtesy of oxmour on Flickr.
The November issue of Wired Magazine contains a fascinating narrative account of how writer Evan Ratliff disappeared and created a new identity for himself, and how Knight grantee Jeff Reifman and a community of dogged Web pursuers found him, using Knight-funded software. (Previously on KnightBlog.)
Ratliff's evasion was nothing if not thorough:
I began my planning months in advance. I let my hair and beard grow out, got a motorcycle license, and siphoned off extra cash whenever I visited an ATM, storing it in a hollowed-out book. One day over lunch, a friend from Google suggested software to hide my Internet address ' 'but all of these things can be broken,' he warned ' and how best to employ prepaid phones. I learned how to use Visa and American Express gift cards, bought with cash, to make untraceable purchases online. I installed software to mask my Web searches and generated a small notebook's worth of fake email addresses.
I shared my plans with no one, not my girlfriend, not my parents, not my closest friends. Nobody knew the route I was taking out of town, where I was going, or my new name. Not even a hint. If I got caught, it would be by my own mistakes.
But when he opened an account for his new identity on Facebook, it was the beginning of his undoing:
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.
Read the full story for the details on how Reifman's efforts sealed Ratliff's fate.
In other news about Newscloud - the application Reifman modified to locate the Wired writer - University of Minnesota researcher Christine Greenhow has published the results of her study showing how this Facebook app increased engagement with the news among a group of 16-to-25-year-olds. Listen to Greenhow discuss that study on American Public Media's Future Tense.