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
Photo: Getty
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In the chaos of the Middle East, the world must stand behind the Kurds

The Kurdish people have shown themselves to be a small beacon of light in a sea of darkness.

It is one year since the lifting of the Siege of Kobanî. Many of us can recall harrowing images of the black flags of Isis flying threateningly from the surrounding hills, of car bombs being driven into the city’s defences, and of heroic citizens defending their houses and families from the despotic invaders intent on killing them. The Siege of Kobanî was the Stalingrad of the Syrian civil war – a true turning point in the battle against Isis.

Since then, we have seen a significant escalation in the involvement of the international community in Syria and Iraq. But to what end? Syria remains divided between various competing forces; Iraq is a half-governed country with declining influence over its populace. Foreign governments play power games across international boundaries which have long-since ceased to be relevant, least of all to those wishing to establish an Islamist caliphate.

Beheadings, suicide bombings, barrel bombs, religious extremism, violent intolerance, mass movements of people – these are just a few terms most associated with the Middle East today. To say the region is complex is an understatement bordering on ignorance.

In a recent PBS documentary, Inside Assad’s Syria, a television crew was sent to Damascus to cover its sectarian, religious and ideological divides. It showed us two halves to the city: one which lives in liberty and security; and another which resides in barrel-bombed apartment blocks and streets overrun with groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad.

In the southwest of Syria, pro-democratic force control pockets of land and fight Assad’s forces. In the northwest, Hezbollah works with Assad’s army to fight Islamist groups. Further north are areas ruled by groups with affiliations to Al Qaeda, such as the powerful al-Nusra Front. In the east, highways and cities have fallen to the apocalyptic regime of Isis, which stretches far across the old border into Iraq. What future does the Middle East have with such contrasting ideological and religious divides? It is near-impossible to offer a positive view for the future.

Resolving these issues will only be achieved in the long term and through a combination of local agreements (and perhaps the portioning of areas) of international oversight. In the short term, what can we do as citizens of a country with vested interests but limited power?

One of the problems of Western coverage and commentary is that we rarely view the Middle East in any way except through the prism of war. Debate is focused narrowly on the issues of intervention, extremism and migration. People are commonly talked about in derogatory terms with most mistakenly referred to as migrants, when many are fleeing from death and destruction.

These are people who, like us, desire to live in peace and security. They want to raise families and contribute to their communities. Although there are theological differences between Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Jews and various minorities, for centuries these groups have lived alongside each other with general tolerance and respect. Churches have existed in the same cities as mosques. Yet the internecine conflicts have ruined the multiculturalism balances in Syria and Iraq. Communities have been divided against each other, sometimes on pain of death. The region is overrun with regressive forces.

Here in the UK, our view of foreign policy is shaped by the forming of alliances with progressive forces – that is those countries, governments and parties committed to values similar to our own. With the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as they are, dominated by regressive forces, our foreign policy is in disrepute. Who should we support in Syria? How can we continue to support Iraq’s army if it is being led on the ground by Iranian generals?

There is one force within the region that is progressive. They share our commitment to democracy, the rule of law and liberty. They have cohesive, well-led armed forces which not only protect their peoples, but also others in fear of persecution. Their women fight alongside their men, often in leadership positions. They have been the bulwark against Isis advances in both Iraq and Syria. They liberated Kobanî from oppression in tandem with US forces.

The Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq have proved their strength and longevity in the face of enormous challenges. Lacking the weaponry appropriated by Isis, they have fought bravely and slowly liberated areas from tyranny. In doing so, they have treated non-Kurdish citizens well and protected them as they would wish to be protected by others. They have put their lives on the line for the common good, such as the taking of towns and cities outside of Kurdish areas. In doing so, they have refrained from declaring an expansion of Kurdish territory, instead stating that such lands will be handed over to local progressive groups when it is ready to do so.

Perversely, Western governments depend on Peshmerga and YPG forces to fight without adequately arming them. In Turkey, the same Kurdish citizens who would fight for the YPG against Isis are prosecuted and sometimes killed during clashes for protesting in favour of devolution. Turkey’s Kurdish populations in towns like Sur, Cizre, Nusaybin and many others are living under curfew. Yet we do nothing to raise this an issue.

Yet is it the Kurdish people that will be the first army to defeat the ideology of Isis. And because of this they are the biggest target. Their men and women are free. They live in lands governed by democracy, social justice and equality. They hold values in direct opposition to Isis but living in cities just miles apart. The Kurds are the only progressive force in the region which shares our values, has a commitment to democracy and has armies strong enough to protect its peoples.

If we believe in supporting those who share our values, we must show them our solidarity. Our support must go to Kurds as a whole not just those who fight for our interests, because the challenges Kurds face go beyond the borders set by the UK and France in 1920. These borders have been disregarded not only by Isis and al-Qaeda but also by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have each ignored international boundaries in pursuit of their interests.

It is fair to say that this simple notion of solidarity leads us to certain complications. Kurdistan is an ancient region divided up by imperial powers between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. How do we support the Kurds without alienating our allies in Ankara and Baghdad?

During the 1991 Gulf War, the US, UK and France established a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan to protect Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s air force. A year later, the first free and fair elections were held in Kurdistan. It was also the first such election in the whole of Iraq. A decade on, whatever the merits of the conflict, the Peshmerga were allies of the Coalition during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Since then, Kurdistan has remained steadfast in its commitment to a democratic future.

In Iraq, there is already a functioning Kurdish state in all but name. It is a pioneering force for democracy in the Middle East. In Iraqi Kurdistan there is a core set of values based on tolerance, respect and freedom of expression. Inclusiveness is enshrined in law. Women are recognised as equal citizens, with a law requiring that a minimum of 30 per cent of National Assembly seats must be taken by women. Furthermore, seats are also reserved for minority communities, with the Christian and Turkmen communities guaranteed at least five seats each. These values mirror our values.

We should adequately arm the Kurdish forces of the YPG and Peshmerga to adequately protect their lands. We must do whatever it takes to ensure Isis is restricted from further post-liberation resurgences, as was seen in the Kobanî region following the redeployment of Kurdish forces to Iraq. Over 350 were killed or injured in that resurgence, simply because YPG and Peshmerga forces are overstretched.

We should also seriously consider supporting Iraqi Kurdistan in its long-term ambition to be an independent state – when the time is right. No other people deserves it as do the Kurds. It is the largest homogenous nation on earth not represented by a unified state. They have a right to determine their own future. True, there are major issues to contend with – most notably corruption, political infighting and the continued presidency of Masoud Barzani beyond his legal mandate – however these issues can be overcome with the close help and guidance of the international community.

Outside of Kurdish controlled-areas lie lands ridden with conflict. We have seen our fellow citizens, friends and trading partners have their lives ruined by the twisted and hate-filled soldiers of Isis. In Syria, close to Kurdish cities, pro-democratic forces have been wiped out by Isis or other Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. The rest of Syria is pock-marked with the barrel bombs dropped by Assad’s forces. Even within Kurdish-controlled areas, bombs have been dropped from Turkish planes on Kurdish YPG soldiers fighting for values which we would call our own. The region is highly complex and constantly changing.

Turkey is therefore a key player. Yet in recent years President Erdogan’s administration has escalated the conflict with the Kurdish citizens it represents. Peace talks between Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Turkish government ended unsuccessfully in 2015. Erdogan appears determined to militarily crush the PKK before any negotiations around a lasting peace can recommence.

Turkey has refused to recognise either the YPG or the PYD – the main political party of Kurds in Syria – as a legitimate force on the ground, due to its concerns that any Kurdish autonomy in Syria may motivate Kurds in Turkey to demand similar rights. Before the Syrian civil war there were thought to be between 16-20 million Kurds resident in Turkey, in contrast to just two million in Syria.

For Erdogan, this issue is of greater importance than what is occurring in Syria and Iraq. During the Siege of Kobanî, Ankara refused Kurdish YPG fighters the right to travel across the border into Kobanî to fight Isis forces. Rather than allow them to protect their families and friends, Turkey sprayed them with tear gas and removed their weapons. Significant international pressure belatedly led to Ankara allowing Peshmerga Forces to travel from Iraqi Kurdistan and enter Kobanî through Turkey – and just in time to save the city from Isis. In the interim period, Isis recruits routinely crossed over the border with ease.

The Erdogan administration’s conflict with its own Kurdish citizens is undoubtedly complex. Many Kurds in Turkey want some level of recognition and autonomy but it is not known how many desire outright independence. A free and fair poll has never been carried out and would not be tolerated by Ankara. President Erdogan prefers to suppress opinion rather than encourage it. Where is our solidarity for people demanding human rights?

While Turkey’s air forces have been bombing the Kurdish-controlled Kandil mountainous areas in Iraq, often missing Kurdish forces, Ankara has remained a strong ally of the government in Iraqi Kurdistan, which it sees as a correcting force against the regional influences of Riyadh and Tehran. However, Ankara fears an independent Kurdistan and the effects this may have on the Kurdish populations of Turkey and Syria. Ankara fears the establishment of a Greater Kurdistan, an option which is not on the table and most Kurds do not think is achievable.

Each of these issues is interconnected. Though Kurds in Iraq may carry different passports to those in Syria and Turkey, they similarly identify as Kurdish peoples. They share a culture, a religion and a language. The challenges faced by Kurds in Syria are of utmost concern to Kurds in neighbouring countries. There is a fraternity that must not be dismissed.

The Kurdish question in Turkey is obviously complicated. Turkey remains a critical member for the NATO alliance with its landing strips used to carry out bombing raids on Isis. Therefore, keeping Ankara on side is important to Washington. This is why we in the West have been relatively silent on the Kurdish issue. Meanwhile, the international and national boundaries of Iraq and Syria are now so distorted to be almost beyond repair. Kurds control areas beyond that of Kurdistan, with no other force strong enough to protect people in those areas. In our determination not to ‘put boots on the ground’, we ask Peshmerga and YPG forces to do the heavy lifting and endure the casualties of a conflict we in part caused. This is unfair to the Kurdish people.

We must encourage Turkey to end the Kurdish conflict within its borders. Ankara must resume peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan and the HDP – now the third biggest group in the grand assembly of Turkey. Ankara should accept that the Kurdish question cannot be resolved by militarily means. The overarching issues of inequality, equal citizenship and minority rights are beyond the control of even the strongest of strongmen.

The UK can help resolve the Kurdish question. We have long been a supporter of Turkey’s aspiration to become an EU member. We should agree to accelerate that process in return for allowing the EU to broker a peace. We have a duty to the citizens of any state which harbours ambition to join us. We have a duty to protect people’s human rights.

At the same time, we should support the Peshmerga and YPG as they fight a common foe. Defeating Isis forces in Iraq and Syria would reduce the Islamists’ ability to train home-grown jihadists and send them back to European cities. We should support them with weapons and finances in return for guarantees over human rights and post-conflict governance of the areas they retake from Isis.

The Kurdish people have shown themselves to be a small beacon of light in a sea of darkness. If we believe in the values of democracy, tolerance and freedom of expression – we must support those peoples that practice them. There are small steps we can take to show them our solidarity. We must do what we can to support them.

Ibrahim Dogus is the Director of the Centre for Turkey Studies (www.ceftus.org) and the Director of the Centre for Kurdish Progress (www.kurdishprogress.org).