What Happens When the Surveillance State Becomes an Affordable Gadget?

When Daniel Rigmaiden was a little boy, his grandfather, a veteran of World War II and Korea, used to drive him along the roads of Monterey, California, playing him tapes of Ronald Reagan speeches. Something about the ideals of small government and personal freedom may have affected him more deeply than he realized. By the time Rigmaiden became a disaffected, punk-rock-loving teenager, everything about living in America disappointed him, from the two-party system to taxes. “At that age, everybody’s looking for something to rebel against,” he tells me over Mexican food in Phoenix—where, until recently, he was required to live under the conditions of his parole. “I thought, ‘I either have to fight the rigged system, or I have to opt out completely.’ ”

Rigmaiden is 35 and slender, quiet with a sardonic smile and thick shock of jet-black hair. Speaking softly and rapidly, he tells the story of how he evolved from a bottom-feeding Internet outlaw to one of the nation’s most prescient technological privacy activists. Rigmaiden left home in 1999 after graduating high school and spent almost a decade knocking around college towns in California, living under a series of assumed names. “I didn’t want to be constrained by all the rules of society,” he says. “It just didn’t seem real to me.” He’d spend weeks living in the woods, scrounging for food and water, testing his limits; then he’d find a place to crash for a while and make a little money on the Internet—first selling fake IDs, then moving on to more serious crimes. In 2006 he wrote software to mine information from databases on the Internet—names, birthdates, Social Security numbers, and the employer identification numbers of businesses. Then he filed fake tax returns, hundreds of them, collecting a modest refund with each.

He bought gold coins with cash, built a nest egg of about $500,000, and planned to move to South America when the time was right. Then, in 2008, an FBI, IRS, and U.S. Postal Service task force grabbed Rigmaiden at his apartment in San Jose and indicted him on enough wire fraud and identity theft charges to put him away for the rest of his life. Only after he was caught did the authorities learn his real name.

The mystery, at least to Rigmaiden, was how they found him at all. He’d been living completely off the grid. The only thing connecting him to the world outside his apartment, he knew, was the wireless AirCard of his laptop. To find him, he reasoned, the people who caught him would have had to pluck the signal from his particular AirCard out of a wilderness of other signals and pinpoint his location. To do that, they’d need a device that, as far as he knew, didn’t exist...


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