Rage Within The Machine

How to track down – with a bit of luck – your Internet stalker

by James Robinson

A few months ago I began an online fundraising project for funds to contribute to my study towards a Masters degree abroad.

I managed to gather some initial attention. I soon discovered that running a website and maintaining a steady stream of visitors is a vexing balancing act, and even more trying when placed concurrently with fulltime work. Quickly it became a site frequented mostly be family, and social networks.

Tracking the habits and patterns of traffic through your website becomes hypnotic. The most basic of internet hosting allows you to see what sites people clicked through to get there, what search terms were used, the amount of hits in a day, and where incoming links are coming from.

One morning I opened up my email to a raft of unpleasant website comments awaiting moderation. There was a certain comical violence to some of them, an unmistakable disdain in all of them.

The language was colourful to say the least.

“I hope your plane crashes into the middle of the Pacific Ocean where you have to survive on the flesh of one of your idiot “friends” who was stupid enough to sponsor you. Then, hopefully a bunch of Oceanic White Tip sharks will chew your c**k off…”

My web-traffic increased 500 percent in one day, with no surprise links to my website, and no new popular Google search combinations boosting traffic. The only lead I had was that someone, other than myself, and not a friend of mine, had posted a link to my website on Facebook.

This abuse continued, and I had to counter an unmistakable and surprising notion, that somewhere in the great wide internet I had attracted a faceless, nameless enemy. Buoyed on by the anonymity allowed by this format, a new screed of copy would await me every morning as I came to my screen.

“…please jump on that sinking ship that is the industry and sink to the bottom ya smarmy face git…”

“…you’re a c***, a priviledged, heart on sleeve, cancer-f***er…”

“…this is only going to get worse…”

There was a certain intimidation inherent in not knowing my enemy, or possibly even enemies. While I did not fear for my safety, I was troubled – my mind endlessly second-guessing at how this had, or who had forced this to, come about. (“Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t…” sprang to mind easily.) Adding to it, most posts contained vague personal details about me, that couldn’t be ascertained from following the site. Whoever the author was they were, or had a connection to, someone that I knew personally.

All of this put me in an interesting position.

I have much the same relationship with my computer as I do with my car. I know the right things to do in order to work it, but if pressed for an answer would have no cogent explanation for a why or how.

I would imagine that likely this puts me in line with a vast majority of internet-users, and car-drivers for that matter.

These messages stirred at the edge of my mind for the following week. And I was quickly transformed from a computing everyman, into an internet-Sherlock Holmes.

For those in the know, the idea of tracing an IP (Internet Protocol) address would be common and obvious. But this was a new world for me to see up close.

All computers when logged into the Internet have an eight-digit Internet protocol address. Internet users either have a static address that stays the same every time they log on, or are assigned a different address every time they log in by their Internet service provider. (Largely due to the fact that the Internet has got so popular they’ve become a very moderated resource.)

Even if this was something I had a vague idea of, it was nothing I considered on any regular basis.

I quickly realised that every one of the forty comments left on the website over the week bore one of these digital fingerprints. Using an IP search tool readily available through a quick Google search – this nameless nemesis had a hometown – London, England and I even had the details of their internet service provider.

Sadly, a court order would’ve been required to take it any further than this. Generally, across most jurisdictions, IP addresses are considered to be private information and subject to strict privacy laws. Hypothetically, if the abuse escalated, I did have this option. Reportedly, however, Internet companies worldwide have vastly differing standards of record keeping when it comes to maintaining a record of who gets what IP address.

This is one of the more delicate areas of debate around Internet policing and privacy – it is difficult to regulate the actions of Internet users without giving up the privacy of Internet users. As it stands, you need to catch someone and work backwards from there.

My case caught a break. One of the IP addresses used was registered to a reputable worldwide not-for-profit company. Even more unfortunately for the poster, I was shocked to know that this post was the only entry that came attached to a valid email address.

From a whole mess of crude abuse, I was now armed with a place of employment, first name and last initial. I quickly reported this to the company in question, convinced that this culprit either was, or knew who was, the driving force behind this private campaign.

I received a decidedly serious response, from an extremely senior up:

…I would like to make to make it very clear that the views in the email are not those of my organisation and I would like to apologise unreservedly for any distress this has caused you. The individual concerned has been spoken to and appropriate disciplinary action has been taken. I can assure you that you will not be receiving abusive emails from the same source again…

My detective work had hit home, and as quickly as the messages had begun, they disappeared. I still had no idea the full name or information of who this was, but I had fired a shot back.

Case closed, somewhat. The whole episode left me completely fascinated.

This minor amount of Internet harassment visited upon me was taken immediately seriously. And rightly so – Internet harassment is serious, and an especially growing concern, especially amongst more cruel and impressionable teenagers. A recent study by the US Justice Department estimated that 23 percent of recorded harassment was electronic.

Internet harassment has led to several tragic teenage suicides, and New Zealand has not escaped this trend. Netsafe estimates that one in four school students are subjected to Internet harassment on some level.

One of the most covered instances internationally involved Megan Meier, in Missouri, USA who committed suicide at the age of thirteen in 2007, after a peer of hers set up a fake MySpace account with her mother and another older teenager. The account posed as a sixteen year-old boy, and was used to gain the romantic confidence of Megan, before those involved shared all personal information with Meier’s classmates, and quickly turned the correspondence abusive.

The mother was indicted, but acquitted. Internet harassment is slippery, and hard to place within clear guidelines. Is a clear threat to personal safety or a threat on family or property needed to execute a complaint? Or is a constant campaign of intimidation? Or is an implied level of threat within correspondence suffice?

A rabid explosion in online communication in the last decade, has in many ways, been fuelled by the new level of anonymity that this (still rather new) medium affords the user. Maybe a counter to these new and disturbing ways of intimidation would be to publicise the fact that this anonymity is only surface deep.

Even on the other side of the world I found my bully, in short time.

For a start, when slinking about the Internet, up to unsavoury deeds, your IP address means that effectively you’re leaving fingerprints everywhere, involuntarily. Following on from this, you can review what information Google holds on you at its new Database tool. Quickly you’ll see it knows you well. It has your friends and your habits, even employing word recognition software on your emails to match you up with relevant adverts.

All sorts of specific, individual information can be taken when performing every task online. Not to mention Google’s “inadvertent” acquisition of private Internet data from home wireless networks while canvassing for their Street View function, complete with personal browsing preferences and a potential capacity to be able to track the physical addresses of IP addresses.

Downloading music and movies is no safer, with most downloaders leaving themselves open to have their addresses and downloading history tracked.

So, with an estimated 90 percent of nighttime Internet traffic in New Zealand attributed to illegal file sharing it is probably worth pointing out the following. Even if straight harassment isn’t your kick, it is worth paying attention to just how anonymous one really is on the Internet.

You may be a little cyber-needle in the virtual haystack, but people can still find you.

I did.