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Spying on people

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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 recipient’s 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.


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 don’t 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 person’s 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.


It gets even scarier.

You can spy before going into any Internet bar, simply by knowing someone’s 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: jsher@journalism.com" (without the quotes but with the colon after the word from … and obviously don’t use my email).

You will get a list of that person’s 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 newsgroup)

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 new jobs.

Go any federal or provincial government web site and you’ll 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 they’re 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. It’s 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.

Don’t know someone’s 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 person’s 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, "bob@yahoo.com" is a lot less identifiable than "muckraker@dailyplanet.com".

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. Don’t 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.

That’s a good journalistic practice in any case. It also keeps the spies at bay.

A version of this article first appeared in "Media" magazine.  All rights reserved by Julian Sher.    In any reprints, please credit Julian Sher at jsher@journalism.com.    For more articles, see JournalismNet's Internet Tips page at www.journalismnet.com/tips: