I was talking with Matt Cooper from Today FM’s “The Last Word” this evening about cyberstalking (see also this G2 crime article).
As an administrator at boards.ie, I (and my fellow moderators) encounter this quite a bit, where someone has been tracked down by either an annoyer or a serious stalker and their content or account on boards.ie is being used as part of a campaign against them. Sometimes we have requests by users to have their account (or a particular post they’ve made) deleted, so that their username (which may indicate who they are) is no longer linked to the posts they’ve made. There is also a responsibility for bulletin board owners to remove users who are threatening or being abusive towards others via their service. Ex-romantic partners may happen on anonymous posts and read something that made them realise who the original poster was, or they find posts in which they or later partners are mentioned, and then regurgitate sensitive bits to mutual friends. Work colleagues may find some personal tidbit about someone which will quickly make its way around the office. Or someone might just be obsessed (e.g. as with Glenda Gilson) or pick on you at random, which may be what happened to Galway writer Fred Johnston:
A well-known Galway writer was stunned this week when he received a sinister e-mail threatening to kill him if he didn’t pay the sender a substantial sum of money. Fred Johnston, an author and poet and director of the Western Writers’ Centre, received an e-mail claiming to come from an individual who had been paid to “terminate” him, and offering to hand over information on the person behind the transaction in return for a larger sum of money.
As I’ve mentioned previously in relation to online social networks, there are a few basic rules that should be followed when posting information online:
- Use your common sense, and don’t post anything that you wouldn’t give to a stranger in the street. That includes your phone number, your address, your birthdate, etc.
- Try not to use your real name or your e-mail address in your online nickname or posting account.
- Keep your work e-mail details separate from accounts used for forums or blogs where you post informally – get a Hotmail or Gmail account for such activities. And don’t give any account password to your partner unless there’s a very good reason to do so (see the G2 article above).
- Be careful about posting potentially damaging information about your relationships with professional colleagues or friends / family, or personal specifics about yourself (because even though you may be posting anonymously, it can be very easy for someone to put 1+1 together and figure out who you are).
- If you post inflamatory statements about something or somebody, be aware that doing so under your own name may lead to a campaign of hate against you. And if you post defamatory statements, be prepared for legal action.
- There is effectively a permanent record of what you contribute to the Web (if you let slip something you shouldn’t about your workplace or family, sometimes even if the original site disappears). It may be on the original site you posted on, in Google’s cache, in the Wayback Machine at web.archive.org, or someone may just save it to their own site or computer. Remember that when you post something sensitive – it could well be there forever – for your parents, your kids, your boss, your future employer to see (even after you’re dead, as we do have some posts from boards.ie users who are no longer with us).
- Blogging is a powerful medium due to its open nature and public contributions, but it is this openness that means that whatever you say can be read by all and people can build up a picture of who you are and what you are doing (even if you don’t realise that they are reading / actively following your blog). Some people mistakenly think that their blog is only being read by a closed circle of friends; if it’s publicly accessible, Google / anyone can get it and forward it to others.
- Do not arrange to meet anyone you’ve only talked to online alone in the real world (see dating guidelines below).
I’m not trying to make people paranoid, but it is no harm to be careful about what you contribute. There is already a huge amount of publicly-available information about individuals ranging from phone book entries to local government planning applications and objections, and it will become easier to link this to less formal information such as blog posts or photos taken (of you, by others) at parties or other events.
Also, Redshift from boards.ie compiled a very sensible set of personal safety guidelines for those thinking about online dating. If you are considering using the Internet for dating, you should definitely give these a read through.