By Julian Sher
One of my golden rules of Internet journalism is that everything
you say and do online can and will be held against you.
Your private emails are kept on at least four different computers
your hard drive, your recipients hard drive, and the
servers that provide the Internet service for both you and your
correspondent. Nothing technically stops your employer or,
presumably, the police armed with a legitimate warrant -- from accessing
your old email messages. They can be stored the same way your phone
records are kept (except email records would show not just who you
called but what you said.)
Still, you can always encrypt your email (check out the encryption
software called Pretty
Good Privacy. And even cynical journalists have to assume your
bosses are not going to go snooping on you.
However, you can spy on what anyone in the world including
colleagues in the office and fellow journalists anywhere else
is saying and doing in online chat groups.
THE BARS OF THE INTERNET
Usenet discussion groups are the bars and pubs of the internet,
where individuals meet online by sending email to like-minded people.
As in the bars in the real world, the chat is often noisy, lewd
and infantile and seldom of much journalistic interest.
But occasionally they can be an excellent place to meet ordinary
people for your stories. Web pages can be fine for finding institutions,
experts or crusaders, but most of the millions of people online
dont have the time, money or expertise to build web pages.
They all have modems and email, however.
Doing a story on people who were adopted children and are now hunting
for their birth families? Try hunting. Want to speak to parents
using ritalin on their hyper-active children? Join the chat at alt.support.attn-deficit
The 20,000 Usenet discussion groups are divided and identified
by various suffixes which roughly indicate their purpose: "rec"
for example, is for hobbies and fan clubs like rec.bicycles.racing
; "sci" for scientific talk (such as sci.med.aids)
and "alt" for alternative issues such alt.politics.homosexuality.
There are also geographic divisions "can" for
Canadian chat groups such as can.military.brats
(a good source for army gossip) or "bc" for British Columbia
(check out bc.general for lots
of political screaming matches)
The best way to hunt through these groups is with DejaNews,
the recognized king of the Usenet search engines. Simply type in
the subject you are interested in and see what messages come up.
You can click on the messages to read them, respond to the individual
author or to the entire group.
But here is where things get spooky.
If you call up any email message posted in a newsgroup, you will
notice at the top of the page DejaNews gives you an option to click
on something called "Author profile". Click and
voila! -- you can read that persons complete cyberhistory.
Everything that person has written to any other newsgroup is available
for you to read.
Most people do not realize they are leaving these cyber-footprints
ever time they go prancing around in newsgroups. As a journalist,
it is a great way for you to check out someone before interviewing
them. A person who wrote an interesting commentary in an environmental
discussion group might be a lot less credible if you discover his
author profile reveals he has also posted 953 messages to alt.alien.abduction!
But it also works the other way. Companies can spy on you. If you
post a series of messages in three different environmental discussion
groups looking for critics of Acme Pollution Inc., be careful what
you say in those messages. Because a smart net surfer at Acme who
reads this column can figure out how to read everything any journalist
has written about the company in these discussion groups.
AND IT GETS EVEN SCARIER
It gets even scarier.
You can spy before going into any Internet bar, simply by knowing
someones email address or even just a part of their address
(the domain name that follows the "@").
Go to AltaVista.
Change the search button from "The Web" to "Usenet".
Then type in "from: email@example.com" (without the
quotes but with the colon after the word from
dont use my email).
You will get a list of that persons most recent newsgroup
postings. Want to see if someone is sending racist emails to white
supremacist newsgroups even though they told you otherwise? This
is a great way to spy on them. (Or, more cruelly, a neat way to
see if your spouse has been hanging around in the alt.swinging.couples
You can even search an entire company or news organization.
Rumours of a layoff at a local high-tech company? Type in their
domain name and see if employees are scouring the newsgroups for
Go any federal or provincial government web site and youll
see their official email address. Nova Scotian civil servants, for
example, all use "ns.gov.ca" in their emails. Type in
that email and see how government bureaucrats use the net. On one
recent Internet training course, we found a government worker who
was using his email to send over 200 often strident messages to
various Christian evangelical groups.
You can spy on the competition, or even colleagues at work. Type
in "from : cbc.ca" or "from : southam.ca"
and see what stories people are working on
or how theyre
wasting their time. On my training courses, I have shown people
messages from their co-workers asking about nude beaches, beer recipes
and sewing tips!
You can also use a special function of DejaNews called Power Search
to do these same tricks. Its a little more complicated but
often reveals better results. (Follow the links to "Deja News
- Search Filter " on my Find People
page.) You type in the email address in the "Author" line
and an * in the keyword line.
Dont know someones email address? You can try looking
for it in various Email directories listed
on my home page . But you can sometimes take a chance and just put
in the persons full name in a simple DejaNews search. Often,
people use their name in signing their messages and since DejaNews
searches the body of the text, you might strike it lucky.
DejaNews used to provide a way for you to make sure your messages
were not archived (by putting certain keywords in the subject line
of your message) but they no longer publicize this option.
You can always use a special email address just for your newsgroup
posts one of those free web-based email services from Yahoo
, Excite or Hotmail
. After all, "firstname.lastname@example.org" is a lot less identifiable
But many news organizations forbid dissimilitude. And in any case,
you are going to want to identify yourself as a journalist in the
body of your message if you want to get proper replies.
So the best protection is caution. Dont write anything on
the net that you would not broadcast on your show or print in your
newspaper. Pose your queries in a neutral, non-slanderous fashion.
Thats a good journalistic practice in any case. It also keeps
the spies at bay.