“We wanted to surprise you with how much information there is about you that can be found relatively easily,” says cyber security specialist Paul Vlissidis, laughing. Job done. I’m gazing at a whiteboard plastered with information about me, from past and present addresses both real and virtual to my son’s nursery and mother’s maiden name.
It offers a small insight into the paranoia that will likely grip the ten people going on the run from Vlissidis and his colleagues in the second series of the unsettling Channel 4 reality-show-cum-real-life-thriller, Hunted.
The premise remains the same: go off grid by any means necessary, avoid detection and capture for 28 days.
For some, that may mean relying on friends or hiding in plain sight in a big city; others might emulate the strategies of last year’s four successful escapees by going rural with tents and bikes or rejecting anything resembling a coherent, predictable plan or strategy. This year, a £100,000 prize is at stake. So how hard is it to disappear?
The hunters have extra equipment at their disposal this year – dogs, drones, helicopters – but the basic tools are unchanged: instinct, research and a deep understanding of the technological resources available. The latter closely replicate those that are used by the state.
“If you’d gone back a decade, what we’re doing on Hunted wouldn’t have been possible,” says Vlissidis. “People’s digital footprints would have been so much smaller. It’s still human error we’re exploiting, it just manifests in a technological way these days.”
Cyber security specialist Paul Vlissidis, retired undercover officer Peter Bleksley and intelligence expert Ben Owen reveal how you can be tracked…
“So much material is available in the public domain since the widespread adoption of social media,” says Vlissidis. “You need to know a few tricks to really exploit it: for example, if you know someone’s mobile number then you can find their Facebook account. Then you have their mugshot and know who their friends are, without breaking any laws – often, it’s someone’s network that’s the weak link.
“Our end goal is to get into email.
“Even millennials that use social media much more, every one of those accounts hooks back to an email address. Email is the key to the kingdom. Thanks to the data breaches at Adobe, LinkedIn and MySpace, huge repositories of user credentials were dumped on the internet and can be accessed, along with passwords. Even those who have changed their password might only have done so by one digit, so you can identify the theme very easily.
“To negotiate security questions, mothers’ maiden names are accessible from websites for a few pennies, year of birth from birth records, parents’ names and so on. For an individual to take all this data off the net is nigh-on impossible.”
Your screen footprint
“If your phone has location services like Google Maps switched on, then we can use open-source tools to find out exactly where you live, what time you left your house, what route you took, when you went into the restaurant, who you met…” says Ben Owen.
“You could use a burner phone – pay as you go, bought with cash, unattributable – but you’d have to use it wisely because the more you use it, the more pattern of life is built up digitally.
“As soon as you contact someone you know, it’s no longer a burner phone because we know about it. And if your laptop isn’t configured properly, it’ll start to emit a fingerprint, a locator from the minute you turn it on.”
“Your face will be on a camera somewhere,” explains Vlissidis. “It was reported recently that your walking gait can be measured as being utterly unique to you, so you can even be identified from that.” Bleksley adds, “With some systems, you can track people from the moment they enter a city.
“Disguises can work, but we might have intel that you’d gone to a shop and bought a disguise. Have you researched it online, paid for it with a card?”
“Whether it’s paying with contactless cards in shops, Oyster cards on London Underground or Apple Pay on phones, we leave this trail of breadcrumbs,” says Vlissidis. “We get all this free stuff, but people don’t consider what they’re giving up to get it.
“My local supermarket could predict what I’m going to buy because I use my store card. I go in and get my free coffee, thinking I’ve done well when I’ve actually given them phenomenally valuable personal information. The motivation is commercial, but the state could access the database with a warrant.”
Your data trail
“All this information we’re gathering only becomes intelligence when we add context,” says Bleksley. “The fact that you live at one address and work at another, they’re just two bits of information.
“When we work out how you travel between the two, that’s when we establish a pattern and begin to paint an intelligence picture. By pulling this great mass of data together, from your cinema-going habits to comments on YouTube videos, we can build a complete dossier on your life.”