Could You Survive Being Hunted?

Credit: Channel 4

Credit: Channel 4

Could you survive 28 days on the run with the state using its resources to track you down? That’s what 14 contestant are doing (in closely simulated form) on a British TV show that’s like a non-lethal Running Man.

While it’s questionable how pure a documentary Hunted is, it certainly provokes thought about the tactics you might use and the wider issue of state surveillance in a high-tech connected age. (It’s available to view online, though those outside of the UK may have to show their own resourcefulness.)

While the show has clearly been stage managed to some extent, on the face of it the rules are as follows:

The contestants were told of their selection around one week before the game started. They were then given one hour’s notice to make a getaway before the hunters started the search. They each have access to a bank account with £450 (approximately US$700). During the 28 days they are not allowed to leave the United Kingdom.

The hunters (who are all professional security and intelligence experts, many of them having worked for the government) can use any of the resources which would be available to real security and police officials. The only information they get about the contestants is a name, photograph, date of birth and starting location.

Some other rules aren’t stated but can be inferred (or are detailed on the show’s website.). Each contestant (or pair of contestants working together) is accompanied at all times by a camera operator who travels and lives as they do. It appears likely that in reality the camera operator is reporting back any actions the contestants take that would show up on surveillance and the hunters then film a dramatised version of the action they take. In return, it appears the hunters aren’t allowed to track or investigate the camera operator.

It also seems likely the contestants aren’t allowed to break any major laws, an obvious disadvantage compared with reality. Unlike a similar show that aired around 15 years ago, which ran in real time with the weekly shows updating viewers, this was completely recorded before transmission. That means that, unlike with real fugitives, the public can’t be asked to look out for the contestants.

[Warning: Spoilers follow.]

The first show concentrated on two pairs of female contestants and one man travelling alone. The first pair survived for a few days by crossing the country on local buses with walk-on-fares, giving the hunters no obvious starting points. However, they were caught after using an ATM, whic gave the hunters a starting point. They then tracked them on CCTV footage, worked out from their movements that they were using buses, and eventually caught them just after leaving one.

The second pair realized they could only risk using the ATM right at the beginning of their trip (meaning they couldn’t access all of the cash) and relied on hitchhiking to move north to more rural areas. While one contestant became paranoid about facial recognition on cameras, she was almost caught out by a more human failing: phoning her family to check up on her son.

By the time of the second such call, the hunters had sent a covert team to recover documents and computers from the contestants homes (it wasn’t made clear if and when this would be legal to do), accessed the woman’s Facebook account and eventually tracked down both her mother and the child’s father, allowing them to monitor their phones to get details, but not the content of the calls. When they discovered one such call came from the British equivalent of a trailer park, they correctly assumed it was the contestant and dispatched a team which narrowly missed capturing them: the pair had realized the consequences of the call and departed.

Meanwhile the hunters were quickly able to use online searches to find enough detail about the third contestant to then get hold of his various license plate details and use the national Automatic Number Plate Recognition system (intended mainly for tracking untaxed vehicles). They initially found him on a major road but were unable to catch up with him before he switched to a smaller unmonitored road. Here he borrowed a car from a friend who ran some sort of auto dealership or repair shop and began heading north to Scotland, figuring the more remote an area the better.

However, the hunters were able to access his computer and discover from both his “deleted” emails and his browser history that he had recently viewed the Wikipedia page for The Thirty-Nine Steps (in which a fugitive hides in Scotland) and had been in contact with friends in Scotland. At the episode it appeared the hunters didn’t have any specific information to narrow down the search, but the contestant revealed to the camera operator that he knew the particular region he was visiting well — the implication in the editing being that this may eventually show up as the hunters explore his history.

It’s a fascinating show and does a good job of being credible but is still edited to maximize the drama. It does raise the question for GaS readers however: what tactics would you use if you were a contestant or (hypothetically of course) a genuine fugitive?