MySpace, fake profiles, and Internet surveillance

American prosecutors have, in the past week, indicted a 49 year old woman on conspiracy and hacking charges for creating a fake MySpace account. In this particular instance the woman’s motives for creating the account were to torment a 13 year old neighbour allegedly leading to her subsequent suicide.

Motive and deed aside – and we can all have an opinion on that – the prosecution is based on “three counts of unauthorized access by violation of MySpace’s terms of service and one count of conspiracy.” In other words, “criminally accessing MySpace.” Read the SecurityFocus article here.

This raises important questions. Some of them here from Bill Thomson, a journalist for the BBC.

We need to be careful that the US legal system, desperate to prosecute someone over the tragic death of a young girl, does not end up establishing a precedent that leads us all to censor ourselves online, just in case.

As Bill mentions, there should be nothing wrong in creating a fake online profile. It’s the motive behind the act that’s important. We are becoming ever more supervised and watched in our online behaviour and good intentions can be misintepreted, “it creates a degree of uncertainty and may, because of that (prosecution), have a chilling effect on what we do online.”

The same is true of the new law reported here on Computer Weekly “that will mean communications companies will have to keep logs of internet usage and make this information available to the police.”

Does this mean that every intent to prosecute an individual will see investigators trawling through web logs looking for new ways to indict somebody? Hey gov, we can’t get him for murder but he did post an anonymous comment to a Computer Weekly blog. Gotcha!

It’s the way we’re going and we’re getting there because nobody is making a big fuss and complaining about it. That’s why there’s a CCTV camera every few yards, it’s why the BBC and DVLA can push their sinister “we know who you are” commercials warning those who dare not pay their TV licence fee and road tax. Soon it be British Telecom advertising that they know all about your online behaviour…

Bill Thomson, in his article, mentions “In Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston Smith is afraid of the telescreen not because he is being watched constantly but because he might be being watched at any particular moment.” It’s a good analogy to where we’re going.