Thursday, February 7, 2013

She's a Flight Risk

Jwz recently posted about this blog called 'She's a flight risk', which ran from 2003 to 2006 and is diary of sorts claiming to be written by a  twenty-something woman who is on the run from her family. The story is that her father is a very rich and well-connected member of a small European country, and he was trying to get her to marry some guy she didn't want to marry. Afraid of his power and influence, and with a fair amount of money stuffed away, she decided to go on the run.

It subsequently got taken down from the net, but jwz thankfully downloaded it and posted it.

It's definitely a great story - I read it all, and really liked it.

The question is, is it real?

Firstly, it's worth reading even if it's not. The author writes really well.

But on the substantive question, it's hard to say. The initial presumption is probably not - Occam's razor says that the more unusual a story is, the less likely it is to be true. Most people live rather boring lives, and some narratives are just too good to be true.

Beyond that, the two biggest points against it are the following. First, the idea that a rich daughter would escape pressure towards an arranged marriage by becoming a fugitive for several years, rather than just giving her father the middle finger. Sure, he'd cut off your money, but is this really better? Some people do crazy things, but this is pretty extreme without more explanation.

Second, if you were going to run away, would you start a blog to describe your experiences? It seems a bit unlikely. Then again, I can imagine that the need to connect to somebody would be pretty strong when you spent months on the run knowing nobody.

So that's the starting presumption against it being real, which seems fairly strong. But there's a reasonable amount of evidence in favor of it actually being true. At a minimum, if it's a hoax, it's clearly one that someone spent quite a bit of money and thought on, and one without a clear motivation.

First, she managed to convince a reporter from Esquire (linked at the jwz site), by at least having someone who matched her description and acted like her meet him in a very expensive hotel room with an armed guard. That on its own doesn't prove anything, but it's pretty serious commitment to a hoax. In addition, I presume that Esquire reporters are not entirely gullible, since the guy knows he'd look like a real fool if it turned out to be proven false.

There are other signs as well that are less visible. For instance, the Esquire article discusses some of the early investigations into the place where the domain was registered:
AeroBeta, Sociedad Anonima
Apartado Postal 0832-0387
World Trade Center
Panama, Republica de Panama WTC
As another commenter pointed out, the name 'AeroBeta, Sociedad Anonima' is comprised of 'Aero', meaning flight, and 'Beta', the measure of financial risk, with 'Sociedad Anonima' in companies being abbreviated 's.a.'. So hence you have 'FlightRisk, s(he's).a.'

That quite a bit of planning, no? Not only do you drop enough cash to set up a company in Panama to hide the domain registration, you give it a name that's a coded version of the website.

The other problem with the hoax theory is that there's no clear payoff. Not only was the author not angling for a book or movie deal, but she turned down a number of offers of such (reported in the Wired and Esquire articles at the time). The website wasn't selling any products, and ended up just drifting off without a clear end. This fact becomes even more stark in hindsight - we now know ex-post that there really was no obvious financial payoff to the whole thing.

For my own part, there's two other small aspects that also point to the 'genuine' side. First, there's an odd tendency for hoaxes that involve a female protagonist to be written by a man. E.g. here and here. Being male fantasy, they tend to eventually end up focusing on male fantasies of female sexuality, with the characters being lesbian, bisexual, or that kind of thing. She's a flight risk had virtually none of that, other than one or two very references that weren't particularly sexualised and instead focused on the charisma of the men in question. In that regard, at least, it suggests a female writer, or a male writer very committed to representing the protagonist as sounding more female.

Second, there's one detail in particular that seems plausible in hindsight that would have been harder to come up with at the time. Here's a line from the April 2003 entry on some of the people she encountered:
Also amongst the exiles was a fairly famous software magnate who had elected to leave the United States "not so much for the tax issue, though that played a part, but more for the everyday nonsense of regulation."
A software magnate, living in a sunny tax haven type country, back in 2003, who left due to "the tax issue" and "the everyday nonsense of regulation"? Tell me that doesn't sound an awful lot like John McAfee, who recently managed to get out of Guatemala and escape back to the US to avoid questioning by the Belize police over a murder. (Previously discussed by me here).

The point is that if I were to think of a name to add now about someone who might have been travelling in the Caribbean back in 2003, I'd pick a description of McAfee. But this one predated by many years the publicity that made him famous as a rich guy living in tax haven countries.

You add all this up, and you're left to choose between two scenarios, both of which would seem highly unlikely on their own, but one of which is very likely true. Odd, huh?

Hard to say. Overall, I'd give it about a 70% chance of being true. Then again, I'm rather gullible.


  1. Certainly that was the age old question.


  2. As an incidental update, the domain is no longer registered in Panama, but Lichtenstein,

    Domain name:

    Holder of domain name:
    Aerobeta Anstalt
    Treka Elke
    Städtle 44
    LI-FL-9490 Vaduz
    Contractual Language: German

    The blog looks like it's hosted through the provider, who seem like pretty serious people. geolocates to Toronto, which is one of the publicly listed datacenters. At any rate, I think the connection goes through there and may then be routed over Tor.

    In addition, email from Isabella is routed through, who appear to be a bespoke service provider based out of Zug, Switzerland. I can't find any other information about them, but their IP correctly geolocates to Zug.

    I agree: If it's a hoax, it looks like an expensive and very well-executed hoax. The level of polish on the network presence looks to me like it was setup by some people who knew what they were doing.

    Certainly, I can tell you that I look to Isabella as I try to setup my own anonymous Internet presence.

  3. Addendum: The life, times, and pictures of Isabella von Finck match the story (and name, obviously) very well. But it looks like Isabella von Finck never really left the public eye in the last few years. Was it all a really clever story with just enough juicy tidbits from reality thrown in to make it believable? Did someone co-opt Isabella von Finck's life to give themselves a credible backstory?

    1. Interesting stuff. It seems like you decided to actually look into the matter, rather than just come to vague conclusions based on half-baked pop psychology. Good stuff!

      This may sound odd, but while I was interested in knowing whether the story itself was real (if for no other reason than to test out my bullshit detector, which is not particularly good), once I'd decided she was real, for some reason I never really wanted to find out who she was. For reasons that don't make much sense, it would feel like I was intruding into something private where I wasn't invited to go, unless she chose to tell her readers.

      In other words, finding out who she was would spoil the mystery. In addition, hoping for her to remain anonymous was for some reason tied up with hoping she wouldn't get caught by her pursuers (which is part of getting tied up in the narrative of events). The skills in maintaining a hardline internet anonymity while blogging are probably similar to the skills of remaining anonymous while on the run in general.