A Quiet Life: How to Lower Your Profile or Go Fully Off the Grid

Part of my work life in most weeks involves consulting phone calls.  The majority of my clients are in the U.S. and Canada.  Not surprisingly, many of my clients have questions for me about privacy.  These questions are generally along three lines:  1.) Buying guns privately, 2.) buying land privately, and 3.) how to avoid paper trails on storage food purchases.  In this essay,  I will try to address all three of those topics, as well as a few related points. One of the key concepts herein is Going Analog.  But first, I’ll mention completely dropping off the grid.

Going Dark

The Going Dark concept implies someone cutting off all normal contacts. This is often coincident with relocating in an attempt to disappear without a trace.  This extreme in privacy is only required for someone in duress.  That is, for instance, someone who is the target of a manhunt,  for a criminal case witness who is at risk, someone evading an abusive ex-spouse, or someone who is fleeing creditors.

Details on fully Going Dark are included in several popular books, such as: How to Disappear: Erase Your Digital Footprint, Leave False Trails, And Vanish Without A Trace.

For most of the rest of us, simply lowering your profile is sufficient.  The following are few suggestions:

Going Analog

The phrase “going analog” refers to  limiting or eliminating all digital  communications, for  fear of tracking or or monitoring.  The term was popularized in the ongoing television series Mr. RobotImportant Proviso: The preceding link to Mr. Robot requires some caution! Although this television series contains a great wealth of practical computing hacking and privacy tradecraft, it is marred by some unnecessary crudity and kinky fornication. So do not allow children to watch it. Keep your remote close at hand, ready to skip past the brief gratuitous sex scenes!

Most of privacy is just common sense.  Keep your paper trail to a minimum.  Don’t  offer your name in transactions if you don’t have to.  (Remember: Cash is King, and Cash is Private.)

In a recent comment to an Odd ‘n Sods column item, SurvivalBlog reader Charles K. offered some great advice on privacy. It is so succinct that I’m re-posting all of it:

My rules for security:

1: Don’t answer the phone unless you know who is calling. If I don’t recognize the number or Caller I don’t answer. If it’s important, they will leave a message. It’s amazing how few important calls I get.

2: If possible, don’t own a computer with a built in camera or microphone. Mine is 12 years old. It’s old, it’s a little slow, but it works. It’s the next one that’s going to be a big problem.

3: Use credit and debit cards as little as possible. In my case, I only use debit card at my bank branch ATM, and credit cards only on large purchases. Otherwise I only use cash.

4: I limit my online purchases to Amazon and on rare occasion Wal-Mart.

5: Disable Bluetooth and WiFi in your car. Then disable Bluetooth and WiFi on your phone. I don’t like that there is a built in microphone in the car, but without Bluetooth and WiFi, it should not be a problem. I don’t want to talk to my car and I don’t want my car talking to me.

6: I usually do not answer my front door, depending on who is there. The optical peephole is a wonderful invention.

7: Finally, know who you are talking to. Know them well. In my case I don’t talk to my nephews about my prepping. I love them dearly, like my own kids, (I don’t have any of my own) but they have really big mouths. They couldn’t keep a secret if their lives depended on it, and it might.

I concur with Charles!

Using Old School Typewriters

We need to assume that all e-mail is monitored and archived. This even includes encrypted e-mail. Instead of e-mails, consider sending old-fashioned hand-written or better yet typewritten letters and envelopes. It is legal to put the addressee’s  mailing address in both the “To” and “From” blocks on the envelope, so do so.

For the greatest privacy–especially for letters to newspaper editors–use an electric typewriter.  My favorite model is the now obsolete Correcting IBM Selectric II.  I prefer these, because they have quick change 88-character “Typeballs” in 30+ different 10 point and 12 point fonts.  It is notable that it is the type head that creates a typewriter’s unique “fingerprint.”  By changing the typeball, you change the fingerprint.

Selectric typewriters, typeballs, and correcting ribbons are now available at very reasonable prices on eBay, Amazon, and through your local Craigslist.  (IBM controlled 3/4s of the typewriter market in the 1970s and early 1980s. So there are huge numbers of perfectly serviceable machines out there!)  I recently saw a set of 16 assorted typeballs sell on eBay for just over $20, postage paid!  Technically, IBM Selectric typewriters are considered digital/analog, but their typewritten output is analog, and that is our goal.

Security Note: Keep in mind that the film ribbon cartridges for Selectric typewriters retain the exact sequence of letters typed, and that can be recovered, forensically.  You can burn the used ribbon cartridges, but that makes a stinky mess.  One trick that I learned in my ASA unit was at simply run the ribbon through a crosscut paper shredder.  (It will spool out of the cartridge as the shredder runs. It gobbles up the film ribbon nicely.)

If type fingerprint anonymity is not a concern to you, then you might also consider buying a traditional manual typewriter. These are great for off-grid living. Just be sure that it is in very good working order and that spare ribbons are available, before you buy!

Buying Guns Privately

In about 35 of the 50 States, buying used guns privately is still possible.  The balance of states have enacted so-called Universal Background Check laws.  These laws effectively made private party sales illegal. Although most of these States exempt pre-1899 manufacture guns and blackpowder replicas from paperwork, the privacy door is otherwise now shut. If you are now living in one of these Universal Background Check States, then I recommend that you seriously consider voting with your feet, to move to a more gun friendly State.

One other option for some Universal Background Check states is building your own guns from 80% complete receivers.

If you live in State that still does allow private party sales, then you usually have several options. These include: Newspaper “For Sale” ads, GunBroker.com, AuctionArms.com, and of course gun shows. At gun shows, you will need to find non-licensed table holders who are there trading guns–typically upgrading their personal collections.

In Trusts We Trust

To convey land deeds privately, it is best to use a family trust. By using a trust, the names of the owners/occupants do not show up on the deed or tax rolls.  Only the trust name is visible. So obviously, you should pick a fairly generic trust name that does not include your surname or location.  A good example name would be “The Plains Trust.”

Switching to Cash

A key tactic in lowering your profile is minimizing your paper trail. Every time you use a credit or debit card, you are creating a fairly permanent record of your purchase.  The obvious solution is using good-ol’ cash.  If possible, you should make the purchases of any controversial books or gear face to face with cash, and don’t leave your name.

Many of the smaller storage food vendors are willing to accommodate cash customers, as long as the purchase is less than $10,000 worth of food,  You simply call them and arrange an in-person payment and pick-up.  Even companies that advertise: “We have no storefront operation” are usually willing to meet customers face to face for a “cash on the barrelhead” transaction.   You just need to phone them to confirm they have that particular stock on hand, and schedule a date and time for the purchase.

Closing Remarks

In this brief essay, I’ve just scratched the surface on this topic.  I’m really looking forward to blog reader comments, with additional suggestions and some “tips and tricks.” – JWR







  1. Why would you go through all the trouble with an old typewriter, when you can get a ubiquitous laser printer with gobs of available fonts?

    When it comes to computers, using Linux makes the most sense in terms of squeezing years of life out of older hardware. It also gives you the most control, compared to commercial software counterparts. Do not use Linux if you are not somewhat tech savvy… there is a lot to learn to gain mastery of this environment.

    If you do use commercial operating systems, stay away from cloud based services and software. Make use of services which contractually are required to respect your privacy. Stay away from ‘free’ e-mail services. If you don’t run your own servers, then consider using something like startmail.com.

    Stay away from Google. It is truly creepy that they somehow manage to know who you are at the office and at home — even if you never identify using a user name.

    If you use a so-called smartphone, you need to actively go through your settings following each update. At very least, you need to disable privacy stealing features which default to “on”. Apps that can access your cameras, microphones and location – delete them when you no longer need them. Again, if you use features like Siri, you have an open pipeline to big brother’s data centre. Smartphones are not conducive to controlling one’s privacy.

    Many motor vehicles are now equipped with telecommunications. You can ask the dealer to shut some of these features off, however, there is a memory on the vehicle that could be accessed by people with physical access and specialty equipment.

    Some police forces are using devices that scan license plates and perform database lookups and whatever it is that they do to maximize their revenue models. Add to that the use of dashcams in private vehicles which is now reaching ubiquity. Many mobile camera systems incorporate GPS data. Travelling from place to place retaining any level of privacy, is largely out of the question – unless you live in the boonies.

    1. @ER
      “Why would you go through all the trouble with an old typewriter, when you can get a ubiquitous laser printer with gobs of available fonts?”

      Two words: Yellow dots

      Can you guarantee that b/w printers do not have a similar method of tracking?

      1. As a 20-year veteran of the printing industry.. they do.
        A service tech, as well as the FBI can tell you the serial number of the machine and date and time printed, of every page that comes off of every printer in the USSA.

      2. Noting that article has NO TECHNICAL DETAILS other than “color printer”… suppose that one uses a plain black toner laser printer? How about that dot matrix printer sitting in the corner? I just don’t have enough information to have me going out and spending money on an old Selectric that may or may not work when it arrives.

  2. 1) Have a decoy address in a nearby town – could be just a mailbox, or a very cheap rental. Go into town once a week to get your mail. Live out in the country and NEVER have anything delivered by UPS, etc. Have it off a gravel lane that the Google car won’t snoop out with its cameras.

    2) Have a digital voicemail number. Give it out like a cell phone for all those snoopy business and agencies that demand your number. Check your voicemail over the Internet.

    3) Get your Internet via wireless, like satellite, MiFi, or WiMax. Your decoy rental is perfect for the initial setup, then move the equipment to your real home in the country.

    4) Liberally give out your decoy address and voicemail number for warranty cards, loyalty cards, DMV, voter registration, passports, and the like. Flood the databases with your decoy address.

    5) Have a web enabled motion camera ($100) inside your decoy address home. Have it email or text you if it sees anything – which it shouldn’t since no one is there.

    A note about E911 cell phone tracking: cell towers use not “triangulation” but “pentangulation” or up to five towers to locate your phone, due to FCC stringent location accuracy demands. Out in the country your cheap flip phone’s location is a bubble several miles radius from the tower. You can use a cell repeater with directional antennas to hit an even more distant tower for more location privacy.

  3. I have a very specific method for buying any and all firearms and ballistics (and yes, I am legally allowed to purchase and possess them). I purchase from private party gun shows only. When attending, I NEVER park in the show parking lot. I park down the road or across the street. I live in a state that does not require front license plates, so I back my truck into a parking space that backs up to a wall or at the very least a sidewalk. I wear non-descriptive jeans, work boots, and, depending on the season, a hooded jacked with the hood up, or a camo hat with the bill down and sunglasses (mybwife calls this my unabomber outfit). I pay cash only. I fill out no paperwork or give no information on my identity, to include drivers license, CCW, etc. I don’t linger, I know what I want to buy, in advance, I buy it, and I get out. I firmly believe that any decent sized gun show these days has a strong undercover presence gathering data. I don’t have any misgivings about the superiority of surveillance and facial recognition technology, but there’s no point making it any easier than it has to be.

    1. Good points, but the look you describe may also additional scrutiny. As a collector that has had a show table on occasion, that look would set off red flags in my mind. Especially the sunglasses and hat/hoodie.

      A happy compromise is hat and glasses, but remove the sun glasses to interact with vendors.

      1. I should’ve been more specific, I don’t wear the sunglasses and hoodie up inside the show (that would just make Me like like a weirdo), but that’s what I wear outside it. Though the hat usually stays on inside.

  4. GunBroker.com requires the use of a FFL to complete the transfer of a firearm. I would not consider that method if you want to avoid paperwork.
    In most states, when you buy a gun from a dealer, you fill out the form for a NICS background check, the dealer submits that info for approval, the form is then stored at the dealers place of business. The FBI is doesn’t even know if you bought a gun all they know is you did a background check and they are required by law to destroy those records every 30 days. Some state require registration, but most don’t.

  5. I started reading this and knew it was JWR before glancing at the authors name. I have tried in the past to minimize my footprint, but always seem to revert back to the convenience of cards, cars, and computers. Is it even possible these days to go dark?..
    I keep thinking the homeless guy on the street is an example of living off grid. He is free to wander the Country with complete anonymity, with no ties to the world he lives in, he walks where he needs to go. So long as he * looks * civilized, for the most part he will be left alone.

  6. Guns: Auction Zip is another great tool to find local auctions. Many have guns, knives and ammo, from a few items all the way up to entire collections. If the auctioneer structures it correctly, these are considered a private sale. The auctions are also a great place to get tools, ” old fashioned” items such as corn shellers, hand powered .grinders, etc. In other words things our grandparents used on a regular basis.
    Phones & vehicles: Be aware that turning off Bluetooth and wifi doesn’t disable the tracking functions. Modern vehicles have a black box that captures data which Leo can recover and phones are tracked by triangulation between cell towers. Only fix I know is an older vehicle (good for more than this reason as well) and not carrying a cell phone.

    1. If you must carry a cell phone, turn the darn thing off for most of the day, most days – if you care about privacy. If you are able to take out the battery, so much the better.

  7. 1) For an example of how extensive hidden surveillance by the government has become, look at a recent news report about a murder case occurring 30 miles out in the countryside from Philadelphia. The police were able to nail the suspect and an alleged accompliance within two days even with the bodies buried twelve feet underground.

    2) How? A database scan of license plates recorded by a hidden police license plate reader in a small rural village picked up the victim’s vehicle license plate around the time of the victim’s disappearance. It also picked up the suspect’s vehicle license plate following the victim. A check of the suspect’s family farm found the victim’s car and a cadaver dog/intense search did the rest.


    3) In this case, we are glad the police caught the suspect –who has reportedly since confessed in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table. But look at the implications. People on the Internet were spied on for YEARS without their knowledge before Edward Snowden and others warned them.

    17 years ago, very few people were aware that the government could log onto your computer from 1000 miles away and watch your screen/keystrokes.

    4) Someone above joked about the Unabomber. The Unabomber was a genius accepted into Harvard at age 16 who left academia and moved to the Montana wilderness because he saw where computer tech was heading– saw the creeping enslavement of mankind that it enables. He attacked computer scientists to try to make them consider the consequences of their work.


    5) Kaczynski was not the first. In 1863, Samuel Butler applied Darwin’s new theory of evolution/natural selection to machines, noted machines’ far more rapid evolution and foresaw that they might one day supplant us.


    I suspect, but cannot prove, that Samuel Butler was the source of Frank Herbert’s “Butlerian Jihad” in his Dune science fiction novels — where in the future mankind revolts against computerized tyranny and bans computers with the command “Thou shalt not make a machine in the image of the human mind.”

    6) The paid prostitutes in the news corporations/monopoly mock any warning about government surveillance and control –but what do those pompous blowhards DO to ensure such tech is not abused?

    Nothing. Edward Snowden had SCI security clearances — and knew he had to go to Great Britain to find a newspaper that would print the truth. That such could no longer be found in America.

  8. Clarification:
    My wording above mistakenly suggests police scanned the database of a single license plate reader in a single village.

    More likely, the database had the license plates/locations of ALL cars moving within a 100 miles of Philadelphia on the day of the victim’s disappearance.

    And we saw the skirt lifted and the police ankle exposed only because of the public pressure exerted by the disappearance of 4 young men within a few days.

    Plus a vague description of government surveillance is useful to the government — because of the intimidation effect it exerts upon the entire population. What Michael Foucault called the “Panopticon”:


    While there is much in Foucault’s writing to dispute, his focus on the nature of government social discipline, surveillance and the prison system is important, given that our allegedly egalitarian system imprisons its citizens at the highest rate on the planet. And has one of the world’s highest concentration of wealth, power and income within a small fraction of the population.

  9. buying property in the name of a trust, one caveat, SOMEONE has to physically SIGN the title transfer documents, so if someone seeking you out knows your address, location or cross streets, all they have to do is search the county real property database online and download/VIEW the actual document and it will have your name on it. Its possible to fake your way thru a closing giving a false name and not providing any proof of identity (“oh damn, I left my wallet at home”) and signing with an indecipherable scribble assuming that your legal identifier is NOT TYPED below your signature, but that then supposes that in the event of your death any title transfer would be difficult unless you arranged in advance for another party to have a life estate or right of use and income from that property for their lifetime. Just buying property in a Trust name isn’t enough. Another caveat, if the secondary person named is to have a life estate or a right of occupancy and income, these can be considered assets by the state or by a creditor and can be liened against and may disqualify someone from government benefits such as Medicaid long term care. If after your death, you wanted Mom to be able to stay in the house until she died, and later she needed to go into a nursing home, her right of use and income from the house supposes a rentable income and that would bump her assets up rendering her ineligible for Medicaid until the house was sold and the money spent down.

  10. I’ve started using my credit card to point anyone reviewing the data towards geographic areas and activities I want them to focus on, should they decide to pay attention to the information.

  11. I am curious why the unbreakable one time pad encryption is not mentioned more often. It can be done offline with pencil and paper — which are kinda hard to hack. (Write on something hard like a glass mirror and burn the work sheet plus the random number string you used.) If you want to use computers or the internet, only enter the encrypted text.


    You really can’t trust anything electronic — you don’t know what is in it. A lot of people have lost money who thought they were smarter than the hackers.

  12. Lots of good information here, although more required. If you are running from the gov’t itself, they have the infinite resource of taxation supported by the SWAT team… they will usually find those they care about. Most of us, probably, just want to be left alone… just don’t want to raise any red flags with the criminal element, or the powers that be, and they might be one and the same… we certainly have nothing to hide… And yet we hear time and again how power is misused, and innocent people are forced to devote their retirement savings to defend against frivolous charges… the argument to keep ones private life, in fact private, is more important than ever.

  13. 1) Amazon has a 1994 book “Surveillance Countermeasures” that covers old-school surveillance detection. Example: go through a narrow opening in a physical “wall” that forces followers into the open — bridge over railroad track, bridge over stream,etc. Have a friend in a hidden position watch the opening after you have gone through for several minutes. Do this through two or three channels and see who keeps popping up. Your friend can then set a flag at an agreed upon location to signal whether you are being followed or are clean.

    2) This isn’t just spy vs spy or criminal stuff — countersurveillance is an important aspect of self-defense, executive protection, etc.

    3) The old school methods have been partially undermined by new surveillance tech — e.g, it is no use trying to flush out a car following you if the hostiles have planted a GPS bug in your car that constantly broadcasts your location to their computer map app via cell phone.

    But if you want to strip off naked and run off through the streets old school still works. Assuming your area is not covered with hidden surveillance cams.

  14. I will not repeat what people previously said.

    For many years now, few people had my coordinates. Few still have this information.
    Obviously I am not listed anywhere. If someone can reach me, he is lucky. I do not use
    social medias. Some people were able to reach me through my contact. I do meet these
    people. If someone manages to reach me without going through my contact he is received
    kindly. I do answer my phone. I am not fearful. This gives a very private and quiet life. I
    like my privacy. This way you can live your life as you see fit in a very private way. I
    don’t go overboard with privacy. There is always a limit to what you can do to protect
    your privacy.

    If someone is very determined to locate me or communicate with me, I am not that naïve.
    I know they can do it. So reasonable methods to keep our private life private is a good

    If in some cases you have more reasons to keep your life and identity buried deep under,
    then you get a new name, new passport, new full set of papers including birth certificate,
    and you relocate where people will only know you under your new identity. This in my
    opinion is very extreme.

  15. I do not know why anyone would go to such links to try to hide from whoever.
    If the government wants something from you they will get it.
    You might think you are off grid or under the radar but that is naive.
    I do not live in fear that the government is going to “get me” or the Black Hat hackers will drain all my accounts.

    Who wants to live life in such a paranoid state?

  16. I disagree about the advice to limit online purchases to Amazon and Wal-mart. Large retailers like these all run data warehouses and mine their data to draw conclusions about you and your buying habits. From a privacy standpoint, you are better off to buy 10 things from 10 different retailers than to make 10 purchases from Walmart of Amazon.

    Now, if all you buy is clothing or you buy and send innocuous gifts to grand kids all over the country, then that isn’t so much a problem.

    Credit card companies do not know what you buy, but the name of the place you buy from is part of the data they receive and retain, so they can draw conclusions from that. If you spend $500 at Bob’s Guns-O-Rama, someone could reasonably conclude that you bought a gun. If you spent $500 at Dick’s Sporting Goods, you might have bought exercise equipment or golf clubs, so they have a harder time drawing any conclusions without any additional data points.

    In general, I recommend that you use credit cards in “normal” places like gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores, home improvement stores, when shopping for appliances, and other safe, non-threatening places, but pay cash for prepping-related items or anything else that might reveal too much about you. If someone looks deeply into your records, you don’t want to appear to be someone that does not use credit cards because that will raise red flags and make them suspect you have an illegal/unreported cash income.

    Finally, last I heard, mail.com is one of the last remaining online email companies that does not require a phone number to set up an account. It is also based outside the U.S., for what little that helps.

  17. if you must pay a bill through the mail, as opposed to having an auto pay from your bank account, use money orders. You can buy them at any post office or many other places among your travels. I use postal money orders and pay cash for them. I do not keep money in the bank unless I need to purchase something online. I cash my paycheck at the issuing bank. i pay cash for almost everything. I never swipe a card in the store.

    If you drive alot, you can pick up money orders from random locations so no pattern can be formed about your purchase locations.

    1. It is a rare thing to get an actual “paycheck” anymore. Even my grandkids working in fast food have to have an account into which their pay is deposited. And my Soc. Sec.benefit is direct deposited. I draw most of it out the same day it’s scary to think what could happen to my entire income in any kind of a bank closing or hacking.

  18. While packing up some books and magazines for an upcoming move I found a Popular Mechanics magazine with the cover story “How our government spies on you – all your phone, fax, e-mail and wire communications are already tapped”. The surprise here was when I looked at the top of the cover for the date, April 2001. The actual story inside isn’t to long but points out the NSA has already created files on over 7000 American citizens. Bet they have been very busy since then, after all 9-11 and the patriot act had not happened yet.

    One of the ways to communicate is with the TV favorite, a book code. I purchased, with cash, at different times a certain book called “Patriots” and sent it out to my close friends as a Christmas present. Whats nice about this book is it has certain words you would be hard pressed to find in many other books so makes it easy to put together a message. Just make sure you have all the same version/printing so it all matches up.

  19. What about using prepaid credit cards? Like the ones that they offer at the pharmacy, grocery stores, etc. You can usually load up to $1000 on them, and they like a regular master card/visa for use. The good thing, it does not have your name on it. I have given these as gifts and everyone said that they had no problems with usage.
    Are postal boxes such as Kinkos or Pakmail or UPS, good for anonymous mail delivery? Or do you have so much info on file that you could be found right away?
    What protections would a credit union offer that a regular bank doesn’t? I heard that CU are better because they protect their members (you) versus the banks who protect their investors.

  20. I am fairly low-profile and make a concerted effort to keep my name, address and phone numbers OFF the internet, but I recently got in the habit of buying items from Walmart’s online store (due to their horrible habit of not stocking particular items in their actual stores).
    Because I had cut down on the number of credit cards I had, I ended up shopping in my local Walmart and on their online store, using the same credit card to pay for both purchases — something I hadn’t ever done previously.
    Much to my dismay, the next time I logged on to my Walmart online account I was presented with every item I had purchased in the LOCSL STORE and was asked if I was ready to re-stock. Walmart had gathered the information from my credit card company and linked my local purchases to my online account and my online purchases!
    If you buy from Walmart online, only use their shopping service as a Guest and do not give them any more of your information than they require. Do not create a personalized account with all your information or they will link your online account to your local purchases when you use the same credit card to pay locally and online.
    I immediately changed all my Walmart dot com account information to fake info and used one of my mail.com email aliases as my new email address for that account. Finally, I emailed Walmart and asked them to change the last name on my account (said I had just gotten married) as that is the only way to change the name on your online account with them. Thankfully they completed my request in mere minutes, They did require a phone number in that name-change request but I used my StraightTalk flip phone with my out of state phone number for that.
    Note on mail.com: once you set up an email account there, you can also create several alias email addresses under the main account, with quite a variety of domain options available. 😉

  21. many services such paying for electricty bills, insurance,etc,will give you a substancial discount if you pay by card before the due day and also will NOT allow you to pay by cash or money order. So guess what ? getting slugged full amount and losing money back in my pocket is a pretty dumb idea. They don’t have my card number because its not a CC [ check only ] that also works.

Comments are closed.