The illusion of anonymity: how easy it is to hunt down a troll?

"Come and find me," said the man who didn't believe it was easy to find people on the net, giving his real name. Twenty minutes later, I knew his address, university and current height and weight.

"Come find me."

Last week, I wrote a feature for a tech blog about the problem of abuse on Twitter. To recap, a number of high-profile women have been on the receiving end of some increasingly nasty abusive messages which have run the gamut from sexist slurs and angry rants to threats of rape and violence. These culminated in a series of messages to the journalists Caroline Criado-Perez, Grace Dent, India Knight and Laurie Penny among others which stated that a bomb had been placed outside each of their homes.

In my piece, I had looked at some of the practical tools that might help people, such as the proposed 'Report Abuse Button' and techniques for filtering out threatening or unpleasant messages and managing a Twitter feed when it is under attack.

The link to my piece that I posted on Twitter got a fair few retweets and I got a lot of feedback. Much was positive, some was less so and I had a few discussions with people who thought that my suggestions were unworkable and one or two who just denied that there was really a problem at all.

One chap in particular took exception to what I'd written. I'll call him Liam, although that is not his real name - he tweets under a pseudonym. Liam tweeted me to say "who actually believes these threats?! How could you put a bomb outside the home of a person you don't know. Just block."

This encapsulates two pretty common reactions to the idea of being threatened via social media. First, it's not real, it is "just words" and, second, the person doesn't really know who you are and can't physically harm you. So you should just block them and move on.

The problem with the latter approach, as I tried to suggest to Liam, is that it just doesn't scale. If you are being harassed by hundreds of people from multiple accounts, as has been the case with people like Caroline Criado-Perez, then blocking becomes more than just a chore. As Caitlin Moran put it, "If a woman is getting fifty of these messages an hour, blocking all the abusers becomes something of a thankless, full-time job."

As for the former - well, that is just wrong, isn't it? We live in public now and it could be possible for someone who wanted to carry out a threat of violence to find their victim in real life. I put this to Liam and we went back and forth for a while. "Where do I live?" he asked at one point.

I conceded that it would be more difficult to find someone like him. People like Stella Creasy and Laurie Penny tweet as themselves and have fairly public lives whereas with him there wasn't even a real name to go on.

He replied simply, giving me his real name and adding: "Come find me."

So I did. Because I realised that I was taking a lot of this on faith - the idea that we all traceable and that the dividing line between the internet and the real world is illusory. Mostly, however, I did it because he was being a cocky so-and-so and I thought it might be funny.

It took around 20 minutes. In my next reply to him I told him the town where he lived, the first 3 characters of his postcode, where he went to university and - I was showboating here - his current height and weight.

He went a bit quiet.

A few hours later he came back to me to admit, somewhat sheepishly, that I was correct and that he probably had too much information online. He has since blocked me and I can't say I blame him, really.

So, how did I do it? It was surprisingly easy. I should stress that I am not any kind of hacker. I work in and write about IT and the internet and I know my way around a UNIX box but I didn't have to breach any firewalls or tweeze open any private data vaults. At no point did ASCII characters reflect off my glasses in a darkened room while I chugged Red Bull and typed MANUAL OVERRIDE. Everything I found out about Liam was on the open web.

Facebook was the obvious starting point. I searched and then narrowed down the fifty-odd people in the UK of the same name using a process of deduction, based on other details from his Twitter feed - mostly to do with the kind of music he liked and some concerts he tweeted about attending. I also made a couple of lucky guesses that I was able to confirm by a kind of triangulation with the odd mention of him on other websites and some forum posts. His height and weight came from his rugby team's published player stats. (He's a big lad, so I definitely won't be paying him a visit.)

There was a point where I realised that I could have found out more. By paying for credits on a reverse directory site I could have found out his exact address. Doubtless, if I had been prepared to break the law and had the necessary skills I may have been able to retrieve much more personal data. Equally, if I had the law behind me and could get a court order then I might not even have needed his name to find who he was.

I was surprised by what I was able to find out but it did confirm to me that although the kind of physical threats that people like Criado-Perez et al have been getting have so far turned out to be all bluster, there is a genuine reason to be concerned that someone who is determined enough could carry them out in person.

That sense of anonymity that we feel online is largely an illusion. It is really little more than the anonymity of the herd - the sense that because we are part of a mass of people it is just too much bother for someone to seek us out.

I had no intention of travelling to [place redacted] to meet [name redacted] or to otherwise act on what I found and I was careful not to put anything too personal in my reply to him where someone else might read it.

It is likely that the quarter-wits currently sending poison-pixel messages to journalists and campaigners via social media have no plans to carry out their threats either, but this doesn’t mean that those threats have any less an impact on their targets. Even the fact that a troll or a stalker can dig up personal information about you could be very intimidating.

The one positive, perhaps, is that the police can use their greater resources to achieve the same ends. As several of the trolls tweeting threats of violence and sexual assault have discovered in the past week, it is foolish to assume that an online persona leaves no trace in the real world.

Troll. Flickr/aka Jens Rost, used under Creative Commons
Police in Tahrir Square. Image: Getty.
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The murder of my friend Giulio Regeni is an attack on academic freedom

We are grieving – but above all, we are furious about the manner of his death.

The body of Giulio Regeni was discovered in a ditch in Cairo on February 2, showing evidence of torture, and a slow and horrific death. Giulio was studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and was carrying out research on the formation of independent trade unions in post-Mubarak Egypt. There is little doubt that his work would have been extremely important in his field, and he had a career ahead of him as an important scholar of the region.

Giulio, originally from Fiumicello in north-east Italy, had a strong international background and outlook. As a teenager, he won a scholarship that allowed him to spend two formative years studying at the United World College in New Mexico. He was especially passionate about Egypt. Before beginning his doctoral research, he spent time in Cairo working for the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). At the age of 28, he stood out with his big hopes and dreams, and he was committed to pursuing a career that would allow him to make an impact on the world, which is a poorer place for his passing.

Those of us who worked and spent time with him are grieving – but above all, we are furious about the manner of his death. While murder and torture are inherently of concern, Giulio’s case also has much broader implications for higher education in the UK and beyond.

Giuli Regeni. Image: provided by the author.

British universities have long fostered an outward-looking and international perspective. This has been evident in the consistent strength of area studies since the middle of the 20th century. The fact that academics from British universities have produced cutting-edge research on so many areas of the world is an important factor in the impact and esteem that the higher education system there enjoys.

In order to carry out this research, generations of scholars have carried out fieldwork in other countries, often with authoritarian political systems or social unrest that made them dangerous places in which to study. I carried out such research in Peru in the 1990s, working there while the country was ruled by the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori.

Alongside this research tradition, universities are becoming increasingly international in their outlook and make up. Large numbers of international students attend the classes, and their presence is crucial for making campuses more vibrant and diverse.

Giulio’s murder is a clear and direct challenge to this culture, and it demands a response. If our scholars – especially our social scientists – are to continue producing research with an international perspective, they will need to carry out international fieldwork. By its nature, this will sometimes involve work on challenging issues in volatile and unstable countries.

Universities clearly have a duty of care to their students and staff. This is generally exercised through ethics committees, whose work means that much greater care is taken than in the past to ensure that risks are managed appropriately. However, there is the danger that overly zealous risk management could affect researchers’ ability to carry out their work, making some important and high-impact research simply impossible.

Time for action

We cannot protect against all risks, but no scholar should face the risk of extrajudicial violence from the authorities. If universities are to remain internationally focused and outward-looking, we must exercise our duty of care towards our students and colleagues when they are working in other countries.

But there are limits to what academic institutions can do on their own. It is vital that governments raise cases such as Giulio’s, and push strongly for full investigations and for those responsible to be held to account.

The Italian and Egyptian authorities have announced a joint investigation into what happened to Giulio, but the British government also has a responsibility to make representations to this effect. That would send the message that any abuse by authorities of students and researchers from British universities will not be tolerated.

A petition will be circulated to this effect, and Giulio’s friends and colleagues will be campaigning on the issue in the days and weeks ahead.

Giulio Regeni’s murder is a direct challenge to the academic freedom that is a pillar of our higher education system. He is only one of many scholars who have been arbitrarily detained, and often abused, in Egypt. As a scholarly community and as a society, we have a duty to strike to protect them and their colleagues who study in dangerous places the world over.

 

Neil Pyper is an Associate Head of School at Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.