Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Anonymous remailers

Some people think that if they use anonymous remailers to send hate mail, no one can ever find them. That's not right.

Well, since the infamous March 15, 2005 - which is not only the anniversary of the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands in 1939 but also the date of a certain problematic FAS faculty meeting at Harvard - there have been several episodes that have temporarily but severely reduced optimism and self-confidence of people like me.

Some of these episodes involve pressure by seemingly nice people - our friends and colleagues, in some cases - who have forced some of us to apologize for our opinions many times, to become silent, and perhaps to create five more women's committees. OK, you could have read these (or similar) stories in the media.

Be sure that the president was not the only person who has been subject to this kind of influence. Those who believe that it's only the president who is not allowed to have certain heretical opinions - because they could be interpreted as the official policy - are very naive people. Obviously, the less powerful a person at a university is, the easier it is to impose the "official" opinions upon her or him.

In my case, there have also been roughly two anonymous senders. One of them was directly inspired by the controversy at Harvard. He has sent two slightly entertaining but very embarassing PDF files that contained a mostly fictitious story about me and a professor of humanities at Harvard (plus the officials at Harvard). The goal was to damage my name and my good relations with the other professor. The recipients were all physics professors at Harvard and probably many others; thankfully, they understood that they should not trust the text. I still don't know who was the anonymous sender although he or she is probably living in San Diego. Maybe I should finally find time to investigate this episode...

After March 15th, I have also received very ugly anonymous e-mail messages about Prof. RW and probably Prof. SP - senior professors who had similar opinions to mine about the whole story. The mail about Prof. RW looked like a message from Al-Qaeda because it was heavily anti-Jewish and the author was apparently a radical Arab. Its goal was to transmute a debate about the role of the sexes (indeed, not genders) to something much more serious. I want to assure Prof. RW and others that this message has not damaged the positive image of them in my eyes, not a single bit.

The other sender related to myself - one whom I dedicate the rest of this text - has informed me through ten or so anonymous remailers and through a web form on a website of mine that she or he was going to kill me; the apparent correlation with the controversies at Harvard was most likely accidental in this case.

Those roughly 100 messages - that were sent more or less every week between April and early July - contained a detailed description how the author was going to strangle me and then masturbate because it was so arousing. In other e-mails, he or she just declared himself or herself to be my personal assistant who would help me to kill myself. Some of these e-mails argued that it was necessary to do the same thing with
  • all males - the ultimate source of the evil
  • all foreigners - especially the Slavs
  • all conservatives

The e-mails contained hundreds of copies of the word "die". They have also informed me that the sender had installed a spycam in my apartment and was going to publish the videos. ;-) After some time, I did not read all of these weird messages.

Because these themes were so stable, I eventually became convinced that the author was probably a liberal female scientist born in the USA who was moreover very likely to be pretty fat. ;-) Well, unfortunately the sender was sending e-mail messages through my website rather carelessly; this website happens to be one of a very few web pages of mine that record the IP addresses of the visitors.

So I learned that the sender was from the University of a state whose name starts either with "Q" or "D" and I asked the network administrators over there to help me to stop these messages. They thought it was sufficiently serious and their police started to study this case - very skillful and pleasant guys, by the way. I admire this kind of policemen who are not only strong but who deal with the "real stuff" and who know how the world really works. Some compliments for the computer administrator are attached at the end of this text.

I always emphasized that my goal has never been to create problems for the person because he or she needed help and compassion rather than punishment. It was a great relief to learn that the sender came from a rather remote university and has probably never seen me. You can imagine that my list of possible suspects used to contain several people I knew which was very unpleasant.

Because the visits to my website that were clearly correlated with the hate mail came from particular IP addresses reserved for modems at their university, the authorities knew the identity of the sender by June 20th; they could not get a confirmation from the remailers but it turned out that the sender was the only person at that university who had connected to these re-mailers from that university at all so that the identification could be re-confirmed by analyzing the log files at the university.

The whole story was a sensitive issue, so they were checking and rechecking and trying to think about alternative explanations; a very professional approach. The person was finally interviewed yesterday (7/11). A very bizarre person, I was told, not really a dangerous one.

Needless to say, my instinct has failed completely. The sender was not a fat female born in the USA but a petite male born in Asia - between 20 and 25 years of age. Yes, the author who wants to eliminate the males was male himself. He spends nights gazing at the skies. His landlord is a very authoritative person. I hope that the one way correspondence he has had with me has helped him psychologically.

Please don't ask me for more details; I won't tell you because I want this story to remain partially anonymous. The only exception are people from the CIA and FBI and the Homeland Security Department; I would give these Gentlemen and Gentlewomen contacts to the skillful computer administrators whose analysis was either nearly perfect or perfect - especially one particular administrator - and who could be very helpful for the security of the U.S. or the whole Western world for that matter. The main message of this story is that all of us should avoid writing anonymous hate mail because this is how things can get out of control. And moreover, they are never quite anonymous.

It may be useful to find the sender of the PDF lies, too - it could help one to focus on creative things as opposed to this kind of stuff.


  1. the role of the gender? Do you mean, it, he, she? a chair, a ship, a man?

    Surely the debate was about the role of sexes. Gender is a grammar category. It is a peculiarity of English language, not shared by the rest of modern western languages, that most objects are of the neutral gender. On the other hand, the debate about sexes is not peculiar to the English speaking countries.

    A consequence of the debate is, it seems, the need of being euphemistic.

  2. Lubos:
    You did the right thing. If there is any physical threat at all, you need to contact law enforcement and let them handle it. It's no joke matter. And I feel sorry for any one who thinks he/she can hide anything on the internet.

    Every single activity on the internet is logged some where: They can not afford not to, and everything is done by physics, not magic. Even activities through anonymous proxy can be traced if needed to.

    My guess is some one is using a proxy located in San Diego. Just because the IP appears come from San Diego does not necessarily mean the person is in that location. Certain it is always traceable when needed.

  3. Lubos:

    I'm glad that this anonymous nasty mailer was found, and I hope it all ends well.

    Do resist any official ideology, I believe anyone in a university in a non-administrative position is not constrained.


  4. Weird! Glad you tracked down one crazy, at least.

    Also glad you learned that your prejudicial suspicions can be wrong.