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Monday, June 20, 2005

Anonymity on the Internet Is Often a Mirage

Picture_anonymity_3This interesting AP story demonstrates how illusory anonymity can be on the Internet:

After what Mayor James West called his "brutal outing" by a newspaper that published transcripts of his conversations from a gay chat room, he complained in an e-mail to the city's commission on race relations. West asked: "Should we all fear that our private conversations will be splashed publicly and out of context for all in our sphere to see?" . . . .

After receiving a tip the mayor was offering city jobs to young men he met in a Gay.com chat room, The Spokesman-Review found a way to corroborate the information without having to subpoena records from the chat room's sponsor.

It hired a computer expert to track the identity of the person behind the screen names "Cobra82," "RightBiGuy" and "JMSElton" that it suspected was the mayor.

As a result, West is the subject of a recall for alleged misuse of a city-owned computer for offering internships to young men he met in the gay chat room. . . .

Law enforcement routinely uses subpoenas in terrorism, child pornography and other investigations to find the identities of Internet chat room users.

But what was unusual about this case was that someone not currently involved with law enforcement was able to unmask a person who thought they [sic] were operating anonymously.

Posted by Daniel Solove on June 20, 2005 at 08:01 PM in Daniel Solove, Information and Technology | Permalink


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If I recall the original story correctly this instance also involved a very right-wing mayor who was speaking out publicly against homosexuals and gay rights. This was surely part of the motivation. Some might question whether this is a legitimate news story, but I think it is- there's an obvious amount of hypocracy in such cases that's certainly relavent to public choice. (I may not be remembering the case correctly, but I think that was part of the story.)

Posted by: Matt | Jun 20, 2005 9:44:47 PM


The case still raises interesting issues about newsgathering techniques, and one could certainly imagine cases in which a reporter used the veil of anonymity to fraudently obtain confidential information, for example. But this case is, I think, an example of "on the Internet, everybody knows you're a dog."

Posted by: Laura Heymann | Jun 20, 2005 8:41:26 PM


Thanks for the extra facts. I hadn't heard about these details. The general principle that anonymity on the Internet is often illusory remains true, but I'm now really pissed off at the AP story I quoted. It is quite misleading! And the grammatical mistake, too. The AP should be ashamed.


Posted by: Daniel Solove | Jun 20, 2005 8:29:32 PM

Well, in this case, the "computer expert" didn't exactly need a technical degree. West had previously gone on a date with an 18-year-old he met in a chat room. Later in the date, West told his companion what he did for a living. After obtaining West's screen name from the 18-year-old, the newspaper hired someone else to pose as an underaged chat room visitor. He then engaged in various online conversations with West, who ultimately sent the "expert" an electronic photo of himself and a link to the mayor’s biography page at City Hall. (See http://www.spokesmanreview.com/jimwest/story.asp?ID=050505_online_relationships for the story.)

Online anonymity is certainly illusory if you keep telling people who you are . . . .

Posted by: Laura Heymann | Jun 20, 2005 8:19:20 PM

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