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Q. If I am careful not to share personal information, can anyone find out who I am and where I live?
Unfortunately, yes. Although this is a very recent problem, and hopefully will be fixed quickly. Under the loophole established by a U.S. district court in Recording Industry Association of America v. Verizon,anyone willing to lie on a form can get your personal contact information – your name, address and telephone number, from your ISP. And your ISP has no choice but to provide it, unless this decision is overturned on appeal. People online are more vulnerable than ever—especially to cyberstalkers.
Q. How can stalkers take advantage of the loophole established by the court?
A spouse, ex-spouse or anyone else can now demand the location of the secret shelters for battered women and children—using a rubber-stamped subpoena. Unfortunately, it is easy to do: just write down an Internet Protocol (IP) address from an email by the protected victim, and fill out a one-page form under Section 512(h) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Without discretion or judicial supervision, a court clerk is then compelled to grant a subpoena, requiring the Internet service provider to reveal the location of the shelter or other protected location.
Q. Is there precedent for closing such technological loopholes?
Yes. For instance, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence successfully fought to close a similar loophole in Pennsylvania related to Caller ID. As in the case of Internet stalking, ad hoc revelations of the secret location of battered women and children would place them in immediate physical danger.
Q. Are there better ways to defeat cyberstalkers than requiring a very narrow interpretation of the DMCA’s subpoena power?
Not really. In fact, the decision both empowers stalkers and destroys many safety features now protecting Internet users. Armed only with an IP address and the desire to target another individual, a stalker or sexual predator will easily be able to pierce the fragile veil of anonymity afforded to Internet users. The decision permits any individual – including those acting in bad faith or worse – to secure a subpoena without the supervision of a judge or the protection of due process.
Q. Is this loophole also hurting law enforcement?
Yes. The identities of officers and agencies undertaking criminal investigations online would be compromised when the target discovers—via subpoena—that law enforcement is associated with a particular IP address. Local and regional agencies are at special risk, as they do not have the luxury of technology used by the FBI and others to hide their operation from a suspect. Moreover, online predators, especially pedophiles, often use the Internet to make initial contact so they can progress to less-traceable offline contact. It is vital to stop such stalkers as early in their schemes as possible.
Q. Who are typical targets of online harassment and threats?
Victims include parties to marital and family court disputes, battered and abused women and widows and widowers, and school-age children, especially young girls. They live with death threats, hacking attacks, Web sites that solicit sex on their behalf, and defamatory postings, sometimes daily. Letting the law stand means predators can easily track down their victims.