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Comments by YACCS
Monday, September 11, 2006

Dumb as a post

As smart as waving a gun at these guys

Sex bait
Recently, a blogger named Simon Owens ran a social experiment on Craigslist. He wandered into the "Casual Encounters" section of the personal ads where countless men and women were soliticing for no-strings-attached sex and wondered, Is it really that easy? As a test, he composed several ads with different permutations of assumed identity and sexual orientation: straight/bi men/women looking for the opposite/same sex. He then posted it to New York, Chicago, and Houston, and tallied the results.

Overwhelmingly and instantly, the ads from the fake women looking for male partners were inundated with responses, sometimes several per minute. All the other ads received lukewarm responses, at best. These results weren't surprising, but some of the observations were... Many of these men used their real names and included personally identifiable information, including work email addresses and home phone numbers. Several admitted they were married and cheating on their spouses. Many included photos, often nude.

His first conclusion was very reasonable: "If a really malicious person wanted to get on craigslist and ruin a lot of people's lives, he easily could."

Jason Fortuny's Craigslist Experiment

On Monday, a Seattle web developer named Jason Fortuny started his own Craigslist experiment. The goal: "Posing as a submissive woman looking for an aggressive dom, how many responses can we get in 24 hours?"

He took the text and photo from a sexually explicit ad (warning: not safe for work) in another area, reposted it to Craigslist Seattle, and waited for the responses to roll in. Like Simon's experiment, the response was immediate. He wrote, "178 responses, with 145 photos of men in various states of undress. Responses include full e-mail addresses (both personal and business addresses), names, and in some cases IM screen names and telephone numbers."

In a staggering move, he then published every single response, unedited and uncensored, with all photos and personal information to Encyclopedia Dramatica (kinda like Wikipedia for web fads and Internet drama). Read the responses (warning: sexually explicit material).

Instantly, commenters on the LiveJournal thread started identifying the men. Dissenters emailed the guys to let them know they were scammed. Several of them were married, which has led to what will likely be the first of many separations. One couple in an open marriage begged that their information be removed, as their religious family and friends weren't aware of their lifestyle. Another spotted a fellow Microsoft employee, based on their e-mail address. And it's really just the beginning, since the major search engines haven't indexed these pages yet. After that, who knows? Divorces, firings, lawsuits, and the assorted hell that come from having your personal sex life listed as the first search result for your name.

Possibly the strangest thing about this sex baiting prank is that the man behind it is unabashedly open about his own identity. A graphic artist in Kirkland, Washington, Jason has repeatedly posted his contact information, including home phone, address, and photos. He's already received one threat of physical violence. Is he oblivious to the danger, or does he just not care? Since his stated interest is "pushing people's buttons," I'm guessing the latter. (See update: Jason's been removing contact information from his sites, so some of these links are now broken.)

Legality and Privacy

But was any law actually broken? Fortuny obviously misrepresented himself under false pretenses, which is itself possibly actionable, but the privacy implications beyond that are very interesting. Does emailing someone your personal information act as an implicit waiver of your right to privacy? I'm not a lawyer, but as far as I can tell, no.

If taken to court, he's at risk of two primary civil claims. "Intentional infliction of emotional distress," while notoriously hard to prove in court, is certainly easier here based on his own writings. The second, more relevant claim, is "public disclosure of private facts." This Findlaw article on the Washingtonienne scandal sums it up nicely:
The disclosure must be public. The facts must be private. The plaintiff must be identified. The publication must be "highly offensive." And there must be an "absence of legitimate concern to the public" with respect to the publication.

It certainly seems like this clearly fits the criteria for a tort claim, but I'd love to hear some legal interpretation from the law bloggers out there. Does volunteering your information in a private context somehow invalidate your privacy rights? I don't think so. (For more information, see the EFF's Bloggers' FAQ on Privacy.)

I contacted Anil Dash, VP of LiveJournal's parent company Six Apart, to see how he felt about the breaking drama. He was clearly disturbed by it, but after contacting LJ's support staff, realized there wasn't much they could do. If they find abusive information, they act quickly to remove it, but in this case, all the identifiable information is on a third-party site. "There are always people who aren't going to be productive members of a community. We try to be consistent in honoring requests if an individual's personal info is being posted without their permission," said Anil. "The hard part, of course, is that nobody can control every site on the web, so there's always somewhere else for a person to go if they really want to be malicious or destructive.."

I haven't contacted Craigslist, but it's clear that as this story develops, it will inevitably have a profound impact on the community. A friend put it simply: "Adults are stupid on the Internet." More likely, their expectations of privacy just haven't been fundamentally challenged yet. They send naked photos of themselves to strangers because it helps get them noticed by the women they're emailing, and it's never backfired on them.

On a final note, this is just getting started. Sex baiting is so simple and so effective, I thought immediately that others would be inspired to do the same thing. And yesterday morning, a commenter confirmed that the first copycat prank is already complete in Craigslist Portland. 94 replies so far, with 60 photos. It won't be the last.

September 10: Jason Fortuny modified his homepage to remove all references to his professional life: portfolio, resume, and references to past clients are all gone. (Compare to the older versions on the Internet Archive.) It also looks like he's been scrubbing his personal contact information from his Livejournal comments and homepage. For example, this link from my post originally went to a comment with his contact information, but it's been removed entirely. (Strangely, he didn't remove his home address and phone number from this entry.) Also, Encyclopedia Dramatica has been down intermittently all day, presumably because of the traffic.

This is stupid on two levels.

One, lawsuits could bankrupt his ass quicker than he thinks. Even if he wins. how many legal actions can he afford. My bet, not one.

Two, every time his name is googled, he's going to be revealed as a man who betrayed confidences on a lark. Untrustworthy will be his new name. Who would trust him to sign an NDA, much less keep client confidences.

In the end, he may have harmed himself more than anyone else. If he had done this to pedophiles, he, rightfully, would be a hero. But when it comes to consenting adults why should someone be embarassed because they like BDSM? It is his reputation, his judgment which is going to face the harshest scrutiny, not his victims

posted by Steve @ 12:42:00 AM

12:42:00 AM

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