Of Avatars and Mob Justice: Invasion of Privacy, or Just Desserts?
An Internet decency group, Perverted-Justice.com, which claims 3,000 to 10,000 unique visitors a day, uses volunteers under avatars named Angel, Cop288, Papa John and Sky Monkey to pose as minors in chat rooms and wait for would-be pedophiles to initiate a conversation.
Once someone falls for the "underage" bait, Perverted-Justice members then "bust" the suspect, in some cases setting up meetings at locations where television cameras are waiting, usually during sweeps weeks, in places, so far shown in Milwaukee, Kansas City, Portland, Detroit, Pennsylvania, New York, Phoenix, and Atlanta.
In one case, 19 men showed up for a fictitious persona while Dateline camera crews waited. Most of the time, however, people are "busted" without a personal meeting.
Then the more technically talented members of Perverted progress to "own" a perp by gathering his personal information through search engines and other, more dubious means, such as gathering a suspect's DMV records with a "don't ask how I got this, but trust me, the information is accurate," comment attached. Then they post that information, along with the perp's picture, on Perverted's highly-trafficked follow up forum.
That's when the harassment begins: Threats of bodily injury, flyers sent to the perp's neighbors, calls and e-mails to his family and employer identifying him as a child rapist, made by unidentified forum members who gather that information off the follow-up forum. And the information stays posted, on about 800 individuals, only 24 of whom have plead or were tried and convicted in a court of law.
There's no denying that the fear of being "outed" like this makes a strong deterrent to the heinous criminals who prey on children over the Internet. But many legal and law enforcement professionals express concern over the group's tactics of using anonymous online personas, then publicly exposing suspects private information for purposes of harassment, without any benefit of due process.
"There's a serious lynch mob thing starting to grow here," says Lee Tein, senior staff attorney specializing in freedom of speech and privacy issues for the Electronic Freedom Foundation. "Our society is highly charged around this issue of child porn — and for good reason — which makes it so dangerous to the accused."
Copies of e-mail messages, forum postings, and instant messages show clear instances of stalking and harassment. For example, an April, 2004 posting by the avatar Meoldyohmy said, "I drove by the house in question this weekend. I will drive by in the morning when they might be home."
In another forum, a perverted-justice member advises others to "Round up your posse and get him!!!"
And a May 2005 forum posting of a chat dialogue shows several vigilantes trying to get a confession out of a suspect with the handle "Stickyfingerz" where avatars "expect_no_mercy" and "jen_patriot2002" threaten to expose Stickyfingerz to his neighbors and warn him to say his prayers, adding, "You have no idea what you're getting ready to face."
Suspects and family members of suspects also say they've been repeatedly harassed and threatened on their home, work, and cell phones, once their private information was outed by the group.
"We got a voice mail the day after my son was outed, saying 'I'm going to rip your f***ing head off and stuff it down your fucking throat,'" says Julie Cison. The kindergarten teacher's son, Thomas, 22, was caught talking about thong underwear with the avatar, "Red Baroness," and agreed to a meeting; he was outed on television last year. A search warrant was subsequently denied, so the case was dropped.
Thomas Cison's information and picture remain on the Perverted site, and the threats continue over e-mail and IM, which Julie Cison believes is due to her joining forces with Corrupted-Justice.com, a group that advocates for the rights of the "busts" once they're turned out.
The Corrupted-Justice founders are also being similarly harassed, says co-founder Matt Carpenter, who claims he's reformed from using similar techniques in luring pedophiles and had joined Perverted forums to share resources, and decided to start stand up against Perverted's tactics.
"I felt it was not just wrong, but dangerous, to anonymously stalk, harass, threaten, intimidate, and post private information about others," Carpenter says. "So on April 29, 2004, I and several others who felt the same way got together and started Corrupted-Justice because we felt it was important to give the other side of the vigilante issue."
Since then, he's seen postings claiming he rapes children and posting his home address, phone number, and contact information for people he knows, he says, providing links to a apoof site and http://www.sungazette.com/forums/topic.asp?topic_id=481&forum_id=10&Topic_Title=Male+Homosexual+Attraction+to+Minors&forum_title=Improving+Williamsport&M=False&S=True.
"The original founders of our site did not have sexual chats with what we thought were minors. None of us have criminal records. We just saw rights being violated and lives destroyed and decided to speak up," he says. "Now, I truly fear for my life and the lives of those around me."
Publicly posting information that's used to harass and threaten others falls under a broadening definition of cyber stalking, says Jennifer Granick, a long-time attorney for hackers and director for the Center for Internet and Society at the Stanford Law School.
"A student of mine recently did a paper that looked into cyber stalking and this group's tactics sound remarkably similar," Granick says. "The paper looked into the problem of sites that post information about people and hope that their supporters will do something to that person, like scare or threaten or harass them, and how the Federal law isn't broad enough to cover those areas, particularly on the Internet, which is international."
Hackers with a God complex
Behind Perverted-Justice is a man with a cult-like following who goes by the handle Xavier Von Erck, real name Philip John Eide, of Portland, who refused to answer this reporter's questions about his group's tactics but instead hurled insults at her method of reporting. In his many forums, Eide, with round face, dark goatee, and intense, thick-lashed eyes, boasts that he is only happy when he is confrontational, that he has no life outside computers, and he doesn't like people much.
He runs Perverted from the "SuperPatriot Network," which takes its stand against religious zealots and racists. SuperPatriot links to his "Oracle" site (where his roommate and Webmaster takes the screen name Phoebus Apollo, the god of prophecy and the builder of the Oracle). From there, you can click the link to his latest site, under development, "Apollo 2016," promoting Xavier Von Erck as vice president for 2016, bio soon to follow. Perverted-Justice also links to a partner site, the Counter Pedophilia Investigative Unit (CPIU), which lists its deputy director as infamous hacker, Rafa Nunez, convicted in April for hacking the Defense Information Systems Agency network back in 2002 when he was supposedly reformed and running the CPIU site.
"What next? Are members of his SuperPatriot site going to go after every man with a Turban and say he's a terrorist?" asks Nancy Fabin, executive director of the Jacob Wetterling Foundation, a child protection advocacy group serving Minnesota and other surrounding states. "Perverted-Justice is playing God. No one should act like an expert in the area of mental, medical health, and forensics investigative procedures if you don't have the training and expertise. They fail to realize they are dealing with a complex continuum of exploiters and victims, and they have this one size fits all approach for every single case they do that's so hate filled, no one will come forward to get the kind help they need because of the shame, fear, and negativism that's being spewed about them."
There are no clear-cut laws to prevent Perverted-Justice from its fear and hate-based approach to getting pedophiles and would-be pedophiles to behave, say Granick and Tien.
So for now, the only legal resolution is to file a civil suit, which aggrieved never have the money to follow through on, says John Dozier, of Dozier Internet Law. Dozier's worked with half a dozen men accused by Perverted, who were also harassed, stalked, and threatened by Perverted-Justice forum members.
"We don't even take cases against Perverted-Justice anymore," Dozier says. "We know there will not be any form of voluntary resolution on the part of Perverted-Justice. And nobody has the money for litigation, which could easily cost a hundred to a hundred fifty thousand dollars."
Dozier recalls a case in which he represented an "honorary society" spammer who ticked off the wrong blogger. Because the blog was prominent in the Google search engine, mobs were driven to the blog site. The anger escalated, a map was posted to the company headquarters, and somebody threatened to get a gun and kill him.
And in late July, Russia's biggest, most-loathed Russian Spammer, Vardan Kushnir, was found with his head bashed in his Moscow apartment, according to Mosnews.com. At first, the local media jubilantly reported that the Spammer was victim of a hate crime, incited by fury over the spammer's disregard for the law. Then, on the third day, it was determined he died in a botched robbery.
"We certainly don't want anyone killed. That was never our intent. And we do have privacy laws in the UK that limit us to only publicly-available information," says Larry Rhein, CTO of the Spamhous Project, one of many sites posting alerts and information about Kushnir.
In this case, Spamhaus, which includes lots of valuable information on how to avoid Spam scams and malware, posted only the spammer's business information. Maybe that's the responsible line to draw between vigilantism and activism. But then, at least in the U.S. anyway, that answer opens up a whole new can of worms: How do we put laws and controls around our information that today is commonly hacked or social engineered into, and also commonly brokered by information aggregators, without violating another of our civil liberties, freedom of speech?
Meanwhile, experts worry that vigilante sites like Perverted Justice, which are a growing problem, according to the Federal Trade Commission, need to somehow be shut down before someone loses more than their jobs and families, which a number of Perverted Justice victims have already lost.
"I want Perverted Justice shut down, big time," says Dennis Roberts, a civil rights attorney in California who represented three people accused by Perverted-Justice two years ago and subsequently had his name posted on Perverted's site accusing him of being a member of ManBLA (Man-Boy Love Association). "I consider that a direct threat to me. And I believe it's only a matter of time before they get someone killed."