Surveillance in Cyberspace  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   March 1996

Surveillance in Cyberspace   

By Whit Andrews
Whit Andrews is a former freelance writer and Internet consultant based in Omaha, Nebraska.      


Internet-savvy reporters using the computer network's public forums to find sources and spark dialogue may want to think twice before logging on. The vast resource that provides reporters with instant access to 13,000 topics of conversation and millions of participants could also make them vulnerable to spying.

In the segment of the Internet known as Usenet, where the popular discussion forums called "newsgroups" are found, people debate subjects as broad as politics and as specific as particle physics. Reporters join in, often seeking sources and background material. But what many of these reporters do not know is that new, highly sophisticated "search engines"--free Internet-accessible software agents--subject them to surveillance.

"Market Place," a consumer-oriented television newsmagazine show in Canada, is one news organization that takes this threat of potential surveillance seriously. The newsmagazine's staff recently has begun taking measures to circumvent search-engine spies.

"Market Place" researchers regularly post Usenet queries to find sources for upcoming stories. They try to locate consumers who participate in certain activities, such as scuba diving, or people who've had good and bad experiences with certain products.

But now, thanks to Usenet search engines, it is possible for anyone with Internet access to key in "Market Place's" Internet address, or any general topic known to be under research by the show's staff, and see all of the show's past postings. In less than a minute, the newsmagazine's research topics are laid out for competitors or corporate public relations people.

No one at "Market Place" has actually been scooped by search-engine spies. But knowing the potential pitfalls of surveillance has definitely made the staff more cautious about posting to Usenet at all, according to "Market Place" researcher Kenton Vaughan.

Growing caution about privacy in cyberspace may be increasing proportionately to the growing number of search engines. At the moment the most widely known Usenet search engine is called DejaNews, located at www.deja-news.com. Recently, IBM built a similar search engine called InfoMarket, found at www.infomkt.ibm.com. The fastest search engine currently available is Alta Vista, located at altavista.digital.com, though increased speed seems to substitute for some of the sophisticated filtering tricks offered by DejaNews. In addition to the advantage of greater speed, Alta Vista updates its database more often than DejaNews, making it particularly valuable for someone interested in breaking news.

Given the surveillance possibilities, what steps can a reporter take to reduce the likelihood that he or she will be ensnared by Usenet spies? Bob Sablatura, a Houston Chronicle reporter well-versed in search engines, suggests the following methods to heighten one's stealth on the Internet:

First, use an Internet account without your name in it. The Chronicle assigns its reporters easy-to-remember e-mail addresses like "bob.sablatura@chron.com," so Sablatura uses accounts with different sign-on names in order to avoid instant recognition.

Second, leave your name out of the posting itself. Those who troll Usenet can easily use search engines to call up all posts with the words "Bob" and "Sablatura" in them, for example, so Sablatura prefers to have people phone him or e-mail him at an alternative address with any private information.

Third, whenever posting to a discussion group, leave out the name of your news organization and use a little creativity in identifying yourself as a journalist. While you want people to be certain that your posting is not merely an idle curiosity, avoid tossing around phrases such as "news article" or "investigative team" if you can help it.

Finally, keep in mind that your competition may be watching. Julia White, a local government affairs writer for the Herald-Sun in Durham, North Carolina, hasn't acted on any of the postings she frequently sees from her competitors down the road at the Raleigh News & Observer. She hasn't really had a reason to, she says, as none of the postings have encroached on her beat.

But would she try to scoop the News & Observer if she happened to discover a posting that tipped her off that the bigger paper was doing a story related to her beat?

"Well," she says, thinking for a moment. "Sure I would."

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