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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How Should a Progressive Blogger React to a Possible Death Threat?

Geolocation can help track Internet thugs

On Monday evening, Legal Schnauzer received an anonymous comment that I interpreted to be a death threat. How should a blogger handle such a situation? I'm not aware of any textbook or position paper on the subject, so there seems to be no clear-cut answer. But I can tell you what I've done, so far.

In the four-plus years that I've been producing this blog, I've received probably 50 to 75 anonymous messages that had a threatening tone. I'm guessing that 20 to 30 of those have been ugly enough to cause me some measure of alarm. I've never described any blog-related communication that I thought caused me to be in danger of bodily harm or death--until now.

What's different about this most recent message? Well, I explained that, in a general sense, with a post yesterday afternoon. Mainly, the timing of the comment--and the content of the post to which it was attached--made me think the individual behind this one might be dangerous.

But I've done a layman's investigation that adds some troubling specifics to the story. We're going to examine some of those specifics, as revealed by a few common Web tools. And we're going to ask, "Have I been the victim of a federal crime?"

In a broader sense, I would like to pose several "big picture" questions: What should a blogger do when an anonymous messenger veers from "disagreeable" or "nasty" to "menacing"? Can writing a blog, or practicing citizen journalism as we do here, truly put your life at risk? If you report such threats, will law-enforcement officials take them seriously? What kind of law governs such behavior?

I welcome comments and ideas from readers because I don't claim to have the absolute answer to all, or any, of these questions.

A good analytics service, many of which are available for free on the Web, might be your best weapon against those who spread fear via e-mail or blog comments. Google Analytics probably is the best known such service, but there are many others out there. Here is a list of the top five blog statistics trackers.

I first read the threatening message, through my Blogger comment-moderation notice, at about 9 p.m. on Monday (August 29). After deciding to publish the comment, I promptly went to my stat service to scroll back about two hours; that's because the comment was time stamped at 6:55 p.m., on a post dated Tuesday, August 23. Could I find someone who had clicked in the comment section of that post in the appropriate time frame?

The answer was yes--and there was only one visitor who proved to be a suspect. (Memo to bad guys: When you click on a post that is several days old, it is likely to have less traffic than a new post. That makes it much easier to track your activities. We never said these people were smart.)

What information did my stats service provide about this visitor? Here is the rundown:

Visitor Analysis and System Spec

Search Referral: www.bing.com — legal schnauzer blog

Host Name: 99-71-178-13.lightspeed.brhmal.sbcglobal.net Browser: IE 9.0

IP Address: 99.71.178.13 — [Label IP Address]

Operating System: WinVista

Location: Birmingham, Alabama, United States

Resolution: 1024x768

Returning Visits: 0

Javascript: Enabled

Visit Length: Multiple visits spread over more than one day

ISP: Sbc Internet Services

What does all of this mean? Well, I'm hardly an expert, but this seems to be the key information:

* The visitor uses SBC Internet Services;

* He made multiple visits spread over more than one day;

* His location, or at least that of the server he uses, is Birmingham, Alabama;

* Most importantly, his IP address is 99.71.178.13

I took this last piece of information and did a search at an IP-address tracking site on the Web. Here is what that search yielded:

General IP Information

IP: 99.71.178.13
Decimal: 1665643021
Hostname: 99-71-178-13.lightspeed.brhmal.sbcglobal.net
ISP: SBC Internet Services
Organization: SBC Internet Services
Services: None detected
Type: Broadband
Assignment: Static IP

We learn that this is a static IP--probably a home user--with a decimal of 1665643021. (Not sure what this decimal number tells us, but it might mean something to a genuine technophile.)

Perhaps the most intriguing data, to me, comes under the heading of "geolocation," which is the art (or science) of matching an IP address to a physical location on the globe. Here is what we find:

Geolocation Information

Country: United States
State/Region: Alabama
City: Birmingham
Latitude: 33.4168
Longitude: -86.6801
Area Code: 205
Postal Code: 35242

Here comes the really fascinating (or creepy) part. If you key in my IP address, it produces a latitude and longitude that is identical to the one above. Does this mean my threat came from someone who lives nearby? It sure looks that way. How close might they be? I'm still trying to figure that out--but I'm guessing it is pretty darned close.

A little research on the Web turns up all sorts of caveats about the accuracy of geolocation software. The general consensus seems to be that a good service is about 80 percent accurate within a 25-mile radius.

Some layman's experimentation has me thinking the geolocation in our area is more accurate than that. I searched on an IP address that I know is about 15 miles from my house and on another that I know is about eight miles away. Both had different coordinates than those for my location.

Did my threat come from several neighborhoods over, from several streets over, from a few houses down the street, from right next door? I'm still working on that question, but I have a definite suspect or two in mind. Do I think these suspects are capable of violence? Yes, I do.

Has my "correspondent" committed a federal crime by using the Internet to send a threatening message? We will turn to that question next.

(To be continued)

13 comments:

choggs said...

Thanks Roger for all that you do

Robby Scott Hill said...

Without getting into all the technical mumbo jumbo, the good news is this dude can be traced. The bad news is, it's an AT&T IP. They will protect his privacy & not reveal his identity without a court order.

If somebody looks at a picture of a 17 year, 11 month & 31 days old girl in a low cut dress & 1/1000 of a millimeter of her nipple is exposed, AT&T will take it upon themselves to call the cops & that person is going to prison.

However, if your life is threatened by a well connected "Good Ol' Boy," who has a future in the Shelby County GOP, the intelligence agents at the FBI & ABI will start twisting arms at AT&T. They will coerce them & convince them that going into cover up mode & losing the IP address records is the best thing to do. Otherwise, problems with their income tax returns are "discovered," & their wives would be disappointed to see the pen registers of their secret calls to their girlfriends. You get the picture :)

Anonymous said...

Schnauzer,

Whoever does these things is engaged in domestic terrorism. If you were not being effective, they wouldn't care or try to silence you. And I think you should absolutely report them to local and federal law enforcement and demand investigations and prosecution. The only way to address aggressive bullies is to be a hyper-aggressive anti-bully. You should do whatever is necessary to find out who they are and then file suit for the chilling effect their crimes cast on your exercise of your First Amendment rights, as well as the chilling effect on all the rest of us. If they succeed in silencing the truth, we all lose. I vote you sic 'em. And a court order might be necessary, but lots of times a good ol' subpoena will do the trick. The U.S. Constitution trumps their "privacy rights" every time, and they can't hide behind a lesser right - privacy - while violating a civil right founded in the constitution. It could be that, in federal court, your rights to free speech and press count even more than a threat against your life.

jeffrey spruill said...

@Robby Scott Hill: Some folk may read the last paragraph of your post and declare it pure hyperbole.

But from my unique perspective(unwanted of course)that's exactly how the system works.

Anonymous said...

They're probably just having fun scaring you. Someone put a stack of unused pee cups like your doctor gives you to get a sample in my locked car somehow a few months ago. Then this week a large bandage like you use for hurt muscles shows up in my locked car. Maybe the hired person's day job is working in a medical supply shop?

Anonymous said...

Have you thought about contacting the FBI???? Or would it do any good?

Ishmael said...

Well, schnauzer, here's what I tell people who threaten MY life what they need to do BEFORE they come to kill me:

1. Make sure their Last Will & Testament is updated and current.

2. Give away all the things they want their survivors to have to avoid probate.

3. Leave the name, address and telephone number of their next-of-kin on a piece of paper in one of their pockets so I know who to call to come collect their mortal remains.

I also tell them that I WILL fight a duel if challenged as long as they understand that, AS the challenged, I choose the weapon we will use. Since I'm a practitioner of Ken and Iai-Jutsu, that means we'll be fighting with swords. I believe, like the Raisuli, that REAL men fight with swords so they can look into each other's eyes.

legalschnauzer said...

Anon:

I'm thinking about contacting the FBI. Not sure it will do any good. The sender's message was vague enough that it might not qualify as a "true threat" under federal law. I'm going to be writing about the applicable law in an upcoming post. Whoever sent the threat, I suspect, has experience with the criminal justice system and knows you probably can get away with a threat, under the law, if you don't get too specific.

legalschnauzer said...

Ishmael:

I like your style. I like R.S. Hill's style. You guys don't mess around.

Rob's motto: "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six."

David Walters said...

Try one or more IP WHOIS sites where you have to pay. You will probably get more info - many a street address.

Anonymous said...

"The sender's message was vague enough that it might not qualify as a "true threat" under federal law."

The republicans must give classes on the legal way to threaten someone, because they're all pretty good at it.

Anonymous said...

God bless you LS. I too have been outspoken on the State Sponsored Child Abuse, via Judge Loyd Little (go this link for his latest display of cowardice http://blog.al.com/breaking/2011/09/retired_madison_county_judge_w.html). I have been punished and my son has too due to me simply asking for my rights to be protected by the State of Alabama/Judges. I was warned by many that being so outspoken would be dangerous - "politics is a dangerous game". Even so, I know I am in good hands with the Lord above. I run into burning buildings as a firefighter so this danger is nothing in comparison. God prepares us for these battles. God also provides us with a brain. I therefore announce to all around me that I proudly exercise my 2nd Amendment Rights, lawful gun owner, lawfully conceal carry permit carry, and will fully sling as much lead as I can toward anyone who endangers me, my son or family. Yes, as others have said, they better come prepared because any harmful attempt on me, and I would say you as well, will be met with as much force in return as I can muster.
Once upon a time, they called those like you, terrorists. These terrorists were the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. It is a shameful place America finds itself in this day and age but it has been a long time coming. Today is now the "future" so many spoke about protecting, looking out for, preparing for, doing what is best for our "future". How have the results proven to be best for us? They haven't. Therefore, I encourage all to trust in the Truth - the Good Lord above. That is my peace regardless of what happens around me and I pray it will be yours too. Please do not stop your blog even though I know it puts you at risk with those who oppose the TRUTH. God will take care of you. - Chris Hobbs, WhyJudgeLittle.com; WhyJudgeBell.com

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