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Privacy Pointers

As a new reader of alt.support.menopause you will likely wish to exchange information, compare symptoms, and engage in debate. In fact, we've found that simply knowing which symptoms are normal is a source of relief for many women, no matter how temporarily aggravating they may be. However, before you begin posting messages, please take a moment to consider what may happen to the information you divulge.

Contents
1. All public messages are recorded.
2. Information from "private" email messages may be made public.
3. Information you divulge may be used against you.
4. You may post messages using a pseudonym.
5. Your privacy may be lost through "protocol errors."
6. Your privacy may be lost if you abuse it.
7. Many people, in full knowledge of the potential dangers of revealing personal information publicly, choose to do so.
8. Trolls and people who bait you.
9. Removing messages.
10. Further information.

1. All public messages are recorded. There are online archives such as www.deja.com, www.remarq.com, and www.altavista.com that save Usenet news messages and make them available to anyone. Additionally, CD ROMS containing all Usenet messages can be purchased by subscription. So once the information is released, it can't be deleted (there are some exceptions, see "Removing messages" below).

2. Information from "private" email messages may be made public. Do not assume that just because you tell a person something in email (as opposed to posting publicly) that the information will be kept confidential. An example: person 'A' wrote to person 'B', inquiring about her health and in particular asking how B's mother had died. 'A' then posted this information publicly, in support of some argument she was making. There are also cliques among the readers, who exchange personal information about others. In other words, if you tell person 'C' something, within a couple of days, 'D', 'E', and 'F' will know about it.

Therefore, unless you have reason to trust an individual, it's probably best to assume the information you give out may someday be made public, and to choose your words accordingly.

One last comment on this topic: if someone threatens you by email, it is generally accepted that that person forfeits the right to any expectation of privacy with respect to the threat. Some people extend this doctrine to include harassing and abusive messages, but this is not universally accepted.

3. Information you divulge may be used against you. Because it is so easy to search the Usenet archives for messages posted by a particular person, curious and malicious people are likely to look up your previous postings to learn more about you. There may be innocent reasons for doing this, but it may also make you the target of malefactors who wish to embarrass you or make you uncomfortable. For example, one person posted the medical history of another reader five separate times in an attempt to make her so uncomfortable that she would leave. Sad to say, there are zealots and fanatics in this newsgroup (and many others) who will use nearly any tactic to advance their bizarre agendas.

4. You may post messages using a pseudonym. Many Internet service providers (ISPs), like AOL for example, permit subscribers to use up to five different aliases or "screen names" for posting news messages. If your ISP does not permit this, there are other ways to post by pseudonym. One method that is free but somewhat complicated is to use the nym server at nym.alias.net. Write to help@nym.alias.net for instructions. Another method is to use commercial software available from www.zeroknowledge.com. Also, there are a number of email forwarding services like www.hotmail.com that provide limited anonymity for free.

Finally, you can use an anonymous remailer and simply type your pseudonym as part of the message. A list of remailers is available at http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~raph/remailer-list.html. Write to help@ the remailer address for instructions. A list of Mixmaster type remailers is available from http://www.obscura.com/~loki/Welcome.html.

5. Your privacy may be lost through "protocol errors." A protocol error, in this context, is simply a mistake in using a communication system that causes unintended information to be divulged.

The most common mistake of this type is where someone wishes to send email, but accidentally posts publicly instead. For example, if you use the Agent newsreader and have it set to handle your email also, then simply typing "F" (followup) instead of "R" (reply) would do this. So you might find a message like, "Here's my home address -- don't tell XXX, I really don't like her", displayed in Usenet for millions of people to see. Not to mention the archives.

Another mistake is where a person posts to one newsgroup using a pseudonym, and to other groups using her real name. One day she forgets to change the name, and before she realizes it, she has posted under her real name to the first group.

Also, if you use a signature file that is automatically appended to messages, beware that your real-name signature file may inadvertently be appended to your pseudonymous messages.

There are some more subtle errors that can give away your identity. For example, some people like to put witty sayings in the "Organization:" header of messages. However, a search on this unique identifier will show messages posted under a pseudonym and under a real name. Likewise, if you're the only person who ever posts from xyz.net, then a search on that term will show your postings by pseudonym and real name, if you post from there by real name.

If you post from an email forwarder, chances are they include the Internet address of your originating ISP in the message header. This will look like, "127.0.0.1": that is, 4 numbers separated by periods. Such numbers can be looked up by appropriate software to show the name of your ISP.

Here are some ways to minimize protocol errors, if you post under a pseudonym:

a. Use different programs for email and for news reading.
b. Use one ISP for real-name messages, and a different one for pseudonymous messages.
c. Do not use signature files.
d. Make sure your messages are free of unique identifiers that can tie pseudonymous messages to a real name.

6. Your privacy may be lost if you abuse it. You don't have an unlimited right to privacy. As an example, if you used an anonymous service to publicly threaten the life of the President of the United States, then it is very likely you would be visited by some large people with badges, no matter what precautions you took. There are experts who can exploit weaknesses in any privacy system. For example, the entropy of messages can be measured to form an identifier typical of a particular user. The message numbers provide date and time information in code. And so on.

The identity of posters can be revealed by court order in some cases. A recent court case involved a company that was the subject of libelous rumors on the Internet, many posted by company insiders, designed to manipulate stock prices. The company was successful in having Hotmail and other email forwarders identify these people.

One form of abuse that is a frequent complaint of this author is when a person uses a pseudonymous identity as a launch platform to harass and insult others. If you are going to hurl insults, have the courage to sign your real name to them, or else risk being unmasked.

7. Many people, in full knowledge of the potential dangers of revealing personal information publicly, choose to do so. In fact, you will find that some of the most respected people on the net do this. It all depends on your individual situation. If you're a celebrity with lots of people trying to invade your privacy, then naturally you'd want to use a pseudonym for non-official messages. If you're just an ordinary person, then posting under your real name may be best. It is certainly easier, and it permits you to more easily form friendships. Just remember that once personal information is revealed, if it is tied to your identity, it is on file and retrievable for ever. This may impact your family, your employment, and may have consequences you don't forsee.

As an example of that last point, there is an organization that compiles medical information on millions of people, and then sells it to insurance companies and basically anyone else with the cash. So information you post could conceivably result in refusal of medical insurance.

For a copy of your file contact:

Medical Information Bureau
PO Box 105
Essex Station
Boston MA 02112
617 426-3660 follow instructions on voice mail.
Request disclosure form D-2

In Canada:
MIB, 330 University Ave. Toronto, Ont. M5G 1R7 (416 597-0590).

8. Trolls and people who bait you. "Trolling" is a reference to the fishing technique of dangling bait in front of a fish, which bites it and is hooked. A troller will follow up your messages and accuse you of things you've never done, make insinuations about you, insult you and so forth. The purpose is to annoy you to the extent that you lash out, probably revealing more than you want to. Whatever your response, it will probably be grist for the mill in fashioning more taunts. For example, a troller will ask, "Do you deny you're a child molester?" Let's say you respond, "That's absurd, in fact I have an adopted child." Now the troller knows more about you, so she was successful. She can now make sarcastic remarks based on this new information.

There are two ways to deal with trolls and the like. If you are quoted out of context, then a reposting of the message in question might be appropriate. In nearly every other circumstance, the best response is to ignore the troll, or alternatively to post something like, "The message I'm replying to was a troll. The information is false or distorted." Your newsreader may have the ability to "killfile" or filter out messages from a persistent troller.

Here is a section of the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document for alt.personals, quoted with permission (author is nssf@greatwildwest.net). See if this sounds familiar:

2.8 Q: Some person has posted something really rude in response to me, or is picking on me. What do I do?

A: There is a certain type of being that's all too common in the online world. I call them "Energy Creatures," a term I first heard from Dean Esmay. Energy Creatures are a bizarre lifeform which grow and feed off of the negative energy generated by others.

Energy Creatures' favorite feeding tactic is to try to hurt people's feelings or get them angry. Then they can feed off the pain and anger they've generated. Their second favorite tactic is to hurt one person or group's feelings while gathering the sympathy of others. That way, when the injured party lashes back, others will jump to the Energy Creature's defense. Then the Energy Creature need do nothing except feed off the attention and the negative energy generated by the people fighting.

We'll never be completely rid of these noxious beings, but we can do a lot to keep the herds under control by remembering this simple formula: DNFTEC. This stands for Do Not Feed The Energy Creature. If you encounter such a beast, your best bet is usually to say absolutely nothing. No matter how hard it is, sitting on your fingers and posting nothing in response is usually the best bet.

Remember, if you fight them, they just get stronger. If you ignore them, eventually they weaken, wither, and go away. This may be hard to remember, but in the long run, that's exactly what you need to do. The temptation to fight back is incredible, but remember, fighting them only makes them stronger. Believe it.

Always keep in mind that your goal here is to meet other people, not to feed energy creatures.

9. Removing messages.

a. Canceling. In some cases a message that is posted can be removed. Many newsreaders have a "cancel message" feature. For example, in Agent it is accessed by selecting the "Post" drop down menu and then selecting "Cancel Usenet message." In Outlook Express, right click on the message title and then select "Cancel." In Unix newsreaders, usually 'c' or shift-c will cancel a message. You can only cancel your own messages.

Technically, when you cancel a message, you are sending a cancel request containing the message-ID number to the news servers. They may or may not honor your cancel. AOL usually does not honor cancel requests, but they will cancel messages from AOL subscribers if the subscriber requests it. When you send a Usenet message it propagates: it may be sent to two servers which each send it to two other servers, etc. The sooner you cancel a message, the better the chance of successfully canceling all copies, because it will not have propagated much.

b. Nuking. Deja.com permits a person to "nuke" their messages. Write to support@deja.com to inquire how this is done, as the method may change. A nuked message is unavailable to ordinary users, although it may be available to law enforcement or by subpoena. Again, this applies only to Deja.com.

c. The "x-no-archive: yes" message header. Some archives, including Deja.com and Altavista.com, honor this header. When their software sees a message header containing "X-No-Archive: Yes" (case is not important), the message will not be archived. It is up to you to find a way to put this line into your message headers. Alternatively, you can type it into the first line of your message. It must be in the very first line, starting in the first column. Remarq.com does not honor these headers, and will archive your message whether or not you permit it.

10. Further information. See the newsgroups comp.society.privacy, alt.privacy, and alt.privacy.anon-server for more information.