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  17 MARCH 1998

Hidden dangers of the Internet

Andrew BrownThere is increasing concern that some new technologies and Internet services could be threatening people's privacy.

Among the latest batch are a CD-Rom that makes it possible to get an address from a telephone number and Web sites that print out maps from a postcode.

Already, cyberstalking occurs regularly in America, and there are fears it will spread to Britain.

Jayne Hitchcock, an American writer, was subjected to indecent phone calls after her signature was forged on a personal ad distributed widely across the Net.

The advertisement included her home phone number and address, and in one evening she received 30 calls from perverts.

As a result, she is claiming $10m damages against the people she believes are responsible for the posting of the advertisement. Hitchcock is also lobbying for a law to make cyberstalking illegal in her home state of Maryland.

Unfortunately, it is often hard to trace cyberstalkers. Other cases, such as those where the Scientology movement has been accused of suppressing messages critical of its practices, have dragged on for years without any proof of who is behind anonymous actions.

British experts fear such cases will soon be common here, aided by new technologies. One U.S. company is already selling a CD-Rom which it claims allows 42 million people to be traced from their phone numbers.

Web sites such as Anywho (www.anywho.com), owned by one of the big U.S. telephone companies, will take an American telephone number and find out the owner's name, where they live and provide a map showing how to get there. Other sites print out maps of any given postcode.

BT is opposed even to 'reverse look up' searches, where you find a person's name from their phone number. A spokesman said such CDs are illegal if compiled from BT directories.

If they are compiled from public records, however, they are thought to be legal. Some are available in this country, compiled by foreign firms, but they are not reliable.

Alistair Kelman, a barrister who specialises in cyberspace law, believes people's privacy is protected by existing legislation. He accepts, however, that forging messages on the Internet to make them appear as if they came from someone else is an extremely easy crime to commit.

He says: 'The law can be enforced only if people can be identified as responsible for their actions. In cyberspace, where anyone can pretend to be anybody else, this doesn't happen yet. We need ways to make sure that people use only identities that they have a right to.'

The technological answer to this, he believes, is to let people choose unique, secure identities for the Internet through a technique called public-key encryption. This gives people unique digital signatures - an apparently meaningless run of letters and numbers that identifies them to any properly equipped computer as surely as a fingerprint.


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