Going off Grid
A number of long and technical books have been written on the subject of "going off grid", and the subject is a complex one that has been the subject of extensive treatment. A great deal can be said about it. However in accordance with our preference for brevity, we are going to summarise some of our own thoughts about this subject in a shorter essay. Firstly we aim to define what it means to "go off grid". Secondly we ask why it matters - and the answer is that in the vast majority of cases, absent some very risky manoeuvres in military theatre or extremely hostile territories, it does not and it is not worth the effort. Thirdly we seek to summarise how to do it, and in doing so we show just how extremely difficult and complicated it is.
The best introduction to the concept of "going off grid" is the Jason Bourne series of movies, which although a decade or so old nonetheless introduce an interested person to the capacity of government, if it so wishes, to trace a person's movements. Those powers have increased in the last decade, so Jason Bourne is a good start. Going off grid means making it impossible for government authorities to follow you, monitor your communications or locate you. It's really not something that anyone except serious criminals might have an interest in, and we must emphasise that we are not providing any advice to criminals on how to evade law enforcement. This article is for academic and scholarly purposes only. Jason Bourne of course had his own curious reasons for going off grid, namely that he was a US Government black ops assassin who had gone awry and was being hunted down by the US Government. (This of course was a piece of silly fiction.) For the rest of us, the enormous technological capacities available to government make going off grid very difficult indeed. You might want to do it in a war zone, particularly if you are a member of a Special Forces unit; you might want to do it if you are entering highly hostile territory and you fear that the government's security services in that country are likely to try to hunt you down and/or follow you for all sorts of unhealthy reasons. Otherwise there's really no point even trying.
If you are going to attempt to go off grid, here are some of the things you need to know.
You may or may not be on a database of people that governments are interested in, and they may be interested in you for all sorts of reasons, some of them bad for you (they consider you to be an international criminal and they are tracking your criminal activities); or good (they consider you to be a vulnerable and/or exposed and/or important person, and they are tracking your movements to ensure that no harm comes to you).
If you are a person government is interested in for whatever reason, then there are various categories of surveillance that may be possible. At the highest end (and this applies only to a group of the most sensitive individuals with extremely important information, contacts and communications and/or whose welfare is of particular concern to government), every electronic communication you make is monitored, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as are your movements by tracking you either using your mobile telephone or from one CCTV camera to another (as we have previously observed, governments may obtain access to privately owned CCTV footage, even in live stream, and even if the private owner of the camera thinks that the camera is turned off).
At a lower level of surveillance, all your electronic communications are monitored automatically for trigger words (for example references to certain countries hostile to western interests).
Changing mobile telephones or SIM cards is generally no use in evading this sort of surveillance, as many governments routinely keep historical records of all mobile phones and their WiFi / mobile phone mast connections so it is possible to ascertain when an individual moves from one mobile phone or SIM card to another through analysis of this location data.
If you are in a higher category of sensitivity, the mobile telephones of others can be deployed (as can CCTV cameras) to lipread and/or record your conversations even if you do not have a mobile telephone.
Turning your mobile 'phone off is not sufficient to defeat surveillance unless you have drained the battery to zero, as the phone's surveillance features (its camera and microphone) can be turned on again without your knowing. Noisy environments without CCTV cameras are good places to have conversations if you are determined not to be overheard, as it can take a huge computational effort to distill what you are actually saying in such circumstances. You can also try covering your mouth with your hand when you speak (and this author has known some people who do this); but this really looks ridiculous.
CCTV cameras, private or public, can identify people by virtue of facial recognition, but most often the identification process is undertaken by way of retinal scan, because in the contemporary era governments have retinal scans of the greater majority of the population by virtue of cameras at immigration desks and similar. It is entirely possible for government to run computer programmes scanning CCTV cameras for retinas of interest across the world, and picking up a person's identity from this procedure.
This explains why Daniel Craig, at the time of writing the latest incarnation of James Bond, tends to wear sunglasses inside dark rooms: he is avoiding the risk of being identified by virtue of a retinal scan from a CCTV camera. However wearing sunglasses at all times to avoid retinal scans is, like holding one's hand over one's mouth when speaking, somewhat ridiculous.
If you are thinking of ditching your mobile telephone and going somewhere without CCTV cameras in order to get "off grid", then be aware that sophisticated contemporary computer software can identify where you might be by reference to places you may have been in the past where it has tracked mobile telephones or CCTV scans associated with you. So you need to go somewhere you have never been before, to get "off grid"; and you need to be reasonably assured that there are no CCTV cameras there.
Of course flying to that place is out of the question, as you will likely pay for your ticket with a credit card (that can be traced); and your name will appear on passenger manifests. Most border crossings now involve electronic scans of your passport, as well as photographic and/or fingerprint identification, so crossing a border is also highly problematic if you want to go "off grid".
You should take care what vehicles you travel in and where, as modern licence plate identification systems can read licence plates (as the recipient of an automated speeding ticket will be aware) and then cross-reference the licence plate on a database of owners and their registered addresses. It is easy to follow a person driving a car registered in their own name, or to draw inferences about where that person might be from the movements of a car registered in the name of a relative or known friend. Public buses or train tickets paid for in either case in cash, with no record of a person's identity, may be preferable. But beware! Many modern trains and public buses contain CCTV cameras. Of course you can always do what Jason Bourne did, which is to stop a complete stranger and ask them to drive you across international borders for a sum of US$10,000 payable in cash. (Note: we do not recommend this; it is a joke; this sort of thing is strictly for the movies.) Or you can drive solely on country roads without speed traffic cameras. But this is not entirely straightforward unless you have a map of every speed camera in a country. (We did find some websites on the internet purporting to offer such a service, but we have not tried them out. We have no idea whether they are legal.)
Sometimes you may be subject to surveillance by more than one person in a government department, one of whom is loyal to his country and the junior official, with delusions of grandeur, may not be so. This person may make errors and become obsessive, because (s)he has relations with a large Eastern European country with aggressive extra-territorial habits that this deluded figure may adopt.
The conclusion to our analysis is that it is extremely hard to go off grid.