When your web posts come back to haunt you

Intelligence gathering

Online profiling with data freely placed into the public domain doesn't require a warrant to collect, and intelligence services collect it enthusiastically. The respected Christian Science Monitor newspaper reported in February 2006 that the US government was already developing systems to mine the data trails we leave in cyberspace. It's also thought that the amount of data collected by the US National Security Agency grows by as much as four million gigabytes per month. However, how difficult is it to mine data in this way?

In January 2006, developer Tom Oward posted an article to www.applefritter.com called 'Data Mining 101: Finding Subversives with Amazon Wishlists'. It described how he produced a tool capable of turning a set of search terms into a list of Amazon customers with a desire to read certain books. In some cases, he could even find addresses and phone numbers.

Oward began by searching for all users with 'Edgar' in their names before downloading their wish lists. Next, he added functionality to search these lists for book titles, ISBNs and authors. He then further expanded the script to allow him to place multiple search terms in a file. After having some fun finding people who wanted to read titles such as Brave New World and 1984, Oward augmented his script to access location information given freely by the creators of the original wish lists to identify themselves to gift-buying friends.

Finally, he interfaced the script to Yahoo's People Finder. In cases where People Finder returned just one hit, he realised he was obtaining the real street addresses and even telephone numbers for wish list owners. Finally, thanks to Google, it was then possible to display a map or satellite image of the area in which the owner of a selected list lived. This sort of detail information would be everything needed to 'keep an eye' on an individual.As mentioned earlier, for peace of mind, it pays to identify yourself in a way that only your friends will understand and recognise.

Web rage

Employers, criminals and intelligence agencies are not the only people who might either misinterpret or use what you put online against you. Although inmost cases it's perfectly safe to have a so-called 'flame war' (a prolonged and heated argument) with someone online, sometimes people may translate words on a screen into real world actions with disastrous consequences.

After a frank exchange of views, insults and finally threats online, Gibbons from Bermondsey tracked his 'opponent' Jones to Clacton using personal details that Jones had placed online. As the judge reportedly said during Gibbons' subsequent trial for unlawful wounding, "It is accepted by the prosecution that Mr Jones taunted you and dared you to go to his house where you would be greeted with weapons."

Gibbons and another man did just that. In December 2005, they travelled the 70 miles to Jones' home, armed with a pick axe handle and a machete. Jones armed himself with a knife before opening the door, and during the ensuing fight, Jones was beaten with the pick axe and cut on the neck.

Gibbons pleaded guilty in exchange for the prosecution dropping charges of attempted murder and issuing threats to kill. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

According to a recent magazine article on the BBC's website, UK police forces now routinely trawl the net, actively looking for evidence of wrongdoing. Beginning some years ago with the hunt for child pornography, they now search for far more. Sometimes, it's a member of the public who alerts them first.

Take the case of 18-year-old motorist Danny Hyde of Stowmarket. He posted a video to YouTube last summer showing him driving his car along the A14 near Ipswich at 130mph. A member of the public recognised Hyde and sent the video anonymously to Suffolk police, who arrested him and charged him with dangerous driving. In February this year, he received a four-month suspended sentence and 210 hours of community service, as well as being banned from driving for 18 months.