Here's our lineup for this third week of March:
- Catching an online harrasser: interview with an expert
- ICQ and "smart filtering"
- Web news roundup - Nearly 80 million of us now!; museums & the Web; teens teaching grandparents; the free-PC groundswell; the SEC and online trading
- Y2K update
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Anatomy of a cyber-harrassment case
We've long been curious about how organizations like CyberAngels and SOC-UM find and deal with online harrassers and stalkers. So we called up Kelley Beatty - an expert tracker of online victimizers and deputy executive director of CyberAngels - and asked her what she does. In answer, she told us about a case she just wrapped up this past weekend….
Kelley received a request for help from a new computer user who was being harrassed online. The woman's harrasser found her when she was using the ICQ program to chat. ICQ, a service of AOL, is a kind of Instant Messaging for the Web - one very popular among teenagers. Kelley told us that ICQ's default configuration shows a user's IP address, which makes the user traceable. The victim (we'll call her "Mary") didn't know her IP address could be traced by anyone who knew the ICQ software.
Mary told CyberAngels it all started when she was chatting in a general chat room. A window popped up on her screen, and the message said, "I'm smarter than you are." Mary answered in a similar tone: "You think so, do ya?" The reply came, "Yeah, watch." Then her computer shut off. She thought it was a fluke, so she logged back on, and 5 to 10 minutes later another message popped up, saying, "See, I told you. You want to see more, just wait." Her mouse started to freeze. She logged off. She told CyberAngels that right away she started having all kinds of computer trouble - the system would lock up or programs wouldn't run.
A few days later she logged on to chat, and the harrasser sent her a picture of the infrastructure of her hard drive. She knew she had a problem, but she wasn't sure what to do. She decided to take her new computer back to the computer store. They ran a diagnostic program and told her she had "Back Orifice" on her hard-drive. Back Orifice, Kelley told us, is a program that allows people to get into a computer's "back door" and operate it remotely. Mary's harrasser had sent the program to her as an attachment to a chat message, and she had unknowingly accepted it (by opening it). When she did, it just looked like a blank window, so she closed it, thinking nothing of it. "It gave him total access to her computer," Kelley told us. The computer store charged her $70 for running their diagnostic program, and that voided out her warranty.
"That really made her mad," Kelley said. "So in searching for information on how to deal with this harrassment, she stumbled on us. She had the harrasser's ICQ user number (in his messages), so she gave that to us."
Kelley's first move was to use her Hotmail account (because that way she couldn't be traced) to ask the harrasser permission to put him on her chat list (in AOL it's called a "buddy list"). To chat with somebody using ICQ, you have to get their permission. In the permission message there's a question that asks why you want to be on their list. Kelley wrote, "Because I heard you're kewl." "He couldn't resist that!" she told us. "I was in. As soon as I was in, I set up my ICQ program so it would flash on my screen every time he logged on. When it flashed, I opened up another software program I have that allows me to find out his IP number [every 'Net user has this identifying number, she told us.] I never actually chatted with him on ICQ. I just found out his IP, found his [Internet service] provider, and discovered that he lives in a fairly small community in Manitoba, Canada." (Kelley has another program that links users' IP numbers to their Internet service providers, such as AOL, Mindspring, EarthLink, etc.)
"I used my Hotmail account," Kelley told us, "to e-mail him last week and tell him I knew what he'd done and that it's illegal in Canada. He could lose Internet service or worse. I pasted his personal information [which she'd gathered with her tracking software] in the message and told him I would be forwarding his identifying information to his victim. I didn't let him know if it was a man or woman. It was the victim's choice, I told him, to contact his parents or not, but the victim was definitely planning to file a complaint with his ISP.
"I figured he's a teenager," Kelley said, "so he'd probably get my message over the weekend, and - sure enough - I got a big, long apology from him last night. He said, 'I'm really sorry, I didn't mean any harm, I was just fooling around. I didn't understand it could cause any problems.' Which was baloney," Kelley said. "He knew exactly what he was doing. He also wrote, 'Please give me the person's name and address, and I'll apologize to her.' I wrote him back that under no circumstances would he get their name and address." She also told him he's permanently on the CyberAngels list, and that if they get any more complaints about him, they'll forward his personal information and the case to his local law enforcement people.
That's a harrassment case, Kelley said. It's not as serious as the sexual-predator cases CyberAngels gets, but a case like this can lead to worse abuses, she said. What CyberAngels does is 1) arm the victim with information about the harrasser, for purposes of filing a complaint, 2) inform the harrasser that s/he's been found out and that action is being taken, and 3) inform the harrasser's ISP. All the ISP needs to know is a time when the person was online and what his/her IP number is, all of which CyberAngels' tracking software provides; with that information, the ISP can go into the user data stored on its computers and identify the harrasser.
"The ISPs don't generally hand that information out," Kelley said, "but if law enforcement requires it, they will. Also, most ISPs have an abuse policy, and if they receive more than one complaint, they'll stop service," she added.
In more serious, sexual-predation and stalking cases - especially those involving contact by phone or mail - CyberAngels involves law enforcement (local police, the FBI, and - in international cases - US Customs), using documentation. Kelley says that, in many cases, they are helping the victim by educating law enforcement. CyberAngels knows how to present evidence so that law officers new to the online world can understand and take action.
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Moving toward "smart filtering" And speaking of ICQ, a story about the chat service in News.com advances the Web-filtering debate.
The only villain in this story (ICQ's policy and filtering services are in process) is ignorance. The question, raised by the American Civil Liberties Union, is: Shouldn't we know what we're filtering when/if we turn on filters? The metaphor the ACLU uses is that of being able to check the ingredients on a cereal box before you buy it. If we turn on filtering in ICQ or install filtering software like Net Nanny, the ACLU suggests, we need to know what we're filtering - which words and URLs are on the product or service's list of words, phrases, and URLs to be filtered.
Some filters, such as Cyber Sitter, don't make that list available to their customers. We think that's going to change as this debate continues. What the Internet represents is power to the consumer. It's raising consumer expectations. Products that don't give consumers information and choices ultimately won't be successful. But tell us what you think: Do you want to know what sites (beyond X-rated ones) you're filtering? Please e-mail us via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Web News Roundup
- Fresh user numbers
IntelliQuest Research says that 38% of US adults are online now. That's more than 79.4 million people age 16 and older (and we know well that under-16-year-olds who surf do up that ante quite a bit!). The market research firm also found that 18.8 million people plan to go online this year, putting the figure at 100 million adult Americans online by 2000. These numbers can be found in a report in a very useful Internet-stats resource called CyberAtlas.
- Museums are cyber-savvy
The New York Times this week spotlights an increasingly valuable and varied resource for our fine arts students: museums on the Web. To museums, having a Web site is now a given. The third-annual "Museums and the Web" conference, being held in New Orleans this year (for 450 attendees from cultural institutions in 26 countries!), is not about *going* online. It's about how to create a "compelling destination" on the Web, the Times says. That spells ever richer educational material for students. There are links to a number of museums' Web "destinations" in the article - well worth visiting!
- More (almost) free PCs
The free (or nearly free) PC concept seems to be snowballing. A business story about it, in News.com, says "questions loom," but they're all business questions (like whether the companies providing the machines can actually make money). The questions needn't trouble us consumers - we can take advantage of these offers while they last! Here are two more firms offering "nearly free" computers: Microworkz, with its $299 computer and free Internet access for one year, and EMachines, with several models of powerful machines for between $399 and $599 (their microprocessors are not Intel Pentium, but rather AMD and Intel Celeron, considered "discount chips").
- Hooray for teen-age teachers
We love the lead of an article from Nando Times this week: "Esther Collins, 77, listened hard as her 17-year-old teacher talked about 'URLs.' " So many of us have been there - trying to get up to speed on this new language of the World Wide Web. We also love the way the Web fosters inter-generational learning. The story's about a thrice-monthly class for senior citizens at Mount Rainier High School - a class taught by students (PTA members are there, too, to support the teenage teachers). And the Des Moines (Washington) Senior Center is another player in this cooperative effort. This is a successful formula that can be duplicated in many communities. If you're aware of one where you live, do tell us about it. And tell us why you feel it works (or doesn't work) so well.
- Uncle Sam's watching
Have you heard media stories about the risks of doing your own stock-trading online? Well, it seems Uncle Sam means to reduce the risk. According to the AOP Bulletin, US securities regulators "have begun routine inspection visits to online brokerage firms." The SEC will be looking at things like advertising, customer service, and the sites' ability to execute orders in timely fashion. The Bulletin's item included some arresting figures: 25% of all retail stock trades are made online, and the number of online stock accounts will surpass 10 million by the end of this year.
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Information on the "Year 2000 bug" keeps rolling in. Some of it might be useful to you, some not. So here are the latest milestones, each with a little info to tell you what you'd be clicking to:
- "The Y2K Report Card" from Reuters via Wired News. A congressional report (out this week) on the US government's readiness. For example, the State Department and the Department of Transportation (including the FAA) flunked; the Social Security Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency got A's. Two more Reuter pieces: "US: Worry About the Y2K Nuts" about how Uncle Sam worries most about public overreaction, and "Y2K: It's Real, Get Ready" about how we should prepare for New Year's as we would for a hurricane or some other 2-3-day "time out" from our usual routines.
- "Y2K Worries Surveyed" from ABCNEWS.com. This is a survey of us Americans - the disruptions we expect over New Year's (and how many of us do expect them) and what we're planning to do about them.
What steps, if any, has your family taken to prepare for the "turn of the century" that's now just 8.5 months away? We'd love to get some tips from our level-headed subscribers! Please e-mail us.
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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend.
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