‘Mr. Robot’ Poses Modern-Day Challenge: Could You Make a Digital Disappearance?

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What would it take to "go dark" like characters in the popular TV series? A lot more technical know-how than most of us possess, and some old-fashioned skills.


As technology has created all kinds of conveniences — GPS directions, the option to text with my kids, the ability to locate a pizza in my area — I sometimes wonder how I would do without it. As I use all these conveniences, I am creating a digital record of my life. We all are.

I have decided not to worry about that record — after all, I reason, it’s not that interesting. But what if I wanted to “go dark” — and shield my activities and communication from advertisers, the authorities, corporations and anyone who was motivated to hack into my world?

The popular television series “Mr. Robot” explores the question: If you wanted to make yourself digitally untraceable — in essence, live entirely “off the grid” — how would you do it?

The answer for most of us: Not easily.

Some of the steps are obvious: Jettison your cellphone (which can be located via cell tower triangulation, even if it doesn’t have GPS) and switch to prepaid phones. Abandon social media. Quit using credit cards, instead switching to cash and gift cards to buy things. Set up a secret email account for emergencies. That’s about as far as my technical know-how goes.

Very often that’s about as far as Hollywood goes when a character is trying to disappear. “Mr. Robot,” by contrast, weaves in a lot more understanding of the technology — and makes it look a lot harder to avoid digital detection.

An article in PC magazine lays out some of the more technical aspects of disappearing from the digital grid, including how to encrypt email messages, how to safely log in to a public Wi-Fi, and how to use a proxy server to hide your IP address. As the article explains:

Once an IP is matched to you, it’s simple enough for law enforcement or clever skiptracers to call the ISP assigned that IP address and match it to a user.

TechRadar offers a few other insights, based on interviews with a former MI5 agent who has studied and experienced what it takes to “go dark.” To start with, the agent told TR, don’t use proprietary software:

“Get off Apple, get off Microsoft and use Linux open source software, because you can at least check the code to see if there is anything bug-wise built into it.”

Ironically, the agent also advises the use of technology from 2008 or earlier. She told TR:

“According to Edward Snowden’s revelations, all hardware post 2008 has backdoors built into it. That means computers, telephones, even USB cables post 2008 can have bugs in them.”

In fact — and this is where the young and digitally savvy might have to learn a thing or two from their elders — it would be useful to know how to use old-fashioned analog tools, like paper maps and street signs.

On the USA Network series, Mr. Robot (an anarchist hacktivist played by Christian Slater) maintains that the only kind of communication that is relatively untraceable is — you guessed it — in-person meetings. Obviously, you’d have to be careful how you arranged your meetings and there would be no entering them on your digital calendar. In fact, based on the plot of the TV show, the meetings should be — by all appearances — chance encounters…

How would you fare if you wanted to eliminate your digital footprint? Consider that question as you watch our video. And then be sure to share your thoughts in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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