The Joy of Handles
by Mahatma Kane Jeeves & David Lescohier
or EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT ME (but have no right to ask)
We should never so entirely avoid danger as to appear irresolute and cowardly. But, at the same time, we should avoid unnecessarily exposing ourselves to danger, than which nothing can be more foolish. [Cicero]
Do you trust me?
If you participate in computer conferencing, and you use your real name, then you'd better.
"Why?", you ask. "What can you do with my name?" To start
with, given that and your origin line, I can probably look
you up in your local phone book, and find out where you
live. Even if you are unlisted, there are ways to locate
you based on your name. If you own any property, or pay any
utility bills, your address is a matter of public record.
Do you have children in the public schools? It would be
easy to find out. But that's just the beginning.
Former Chairman of the U.S. Privacy Protection Commission
David F. Linowes, in his book "Privacy in America" (1989),
writes of New York private investigator Irwin Blye:
"Challenged to prove his contention that, given a little
time and his usual fee, he could learn all about an
individual without even speaking with him, Blye was
presented with a subject -- a New Jersey
newspaperman.... The result was a five-page, single-
spaced, typed report which documented, though not always
accurately, a wide sweep of the journalist's past, and
was detailed to the point of disclosing his father's
income before his retirement."
Who am I? If I don't post, you might not even know I exist.
I could be on your local Police Department, or an agent
working with the IRS, or some federal law-enforcement
agency. I could be a member of some fanatical hate group,
or criminal organization. I might even be a former Nixon
I could be that pyromaniacal teenager you flamed last
weekend, for posting a step-by-step description of how he
made plastic explosive in his high-school chem lab. He
seemed kind of mad.
But you're an upstanding citizen; you have nothing to hide.
So why not use your name on the nets? Trust me. There's
nothing to worry about.
WHAT'S ALL THIS BROUHAHA?
Stupidity is evil waiting to happen. [Clay Bond]
Not long ago in Fidonet's BCSNET echo (the Boston Computer
Society's national conference), the following was posted by
the conference moderator to a user calling himself "Captain
"May we ask dear Captain Kirk that it would be very
polite if you could use your real name in an echomail
conference? This particular message area is shared
with BBS's all across the country and everyone else is
using their real name. It is only common courtesy to
do so in an echomail conference."
One of us (mkj) responded with a post questioning that
policy. Soon the conference had erupted into a heated
debate! Although mkj had worried that the subject might be
dismissed as trivial, it apparently touched a nerve. It
brought forth debate over issues and perceptions central to
computer communications in general, and it revealed profound
disparities in fundamental values and assumptions among
This article is a response to that debate, and to the
prevailing negative attitudes regarding the use of handles.
Handles seem to have a bad reputation. Their use is
strangely unpopular, and frequently forbidden by network
authorities. Many people seem to feel that handles are rude
or dishonest, or that anyone wishing to conceal his or her
identity must be up to no good. It is the primary purpose
of this article to dispel such prejudices.
Let us make one thing perfectly clear here at the outset: We
do NOT challenge the need or the right of sysops to know the
identities of their users! But we do believe that a sysop
who collects user names has a serious responsibility to
protect that information. This means making sure that no
one has access to the data without a legal warrant, and it
certainly means not pressuring users to broadcast their real
names in widespread public forums such as conferences.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A STAR?
John Lennon died for our sins. [anonymous]
Andy Warhol said that "In the future, everyone will be
famous for fifteen minutes". The computer nets, more than
any other medium, lend credibility to this prediction. A
network conference may span the globe more completely than
even satellite TV, yet be open to anyone who can afford the
simplest computer and modem. Through our participation in
conferencing, each of us becomes, if only briefly, a public
figure of sorts -- often without realizing it, and without
any contemplation of the implications and possible
Brian Reid ([email protected]) conducts and distributes
periodic surveys of Usenet conference readership. His
statistical results for the end of 1991 show that of the
1,459 conferences which currently make up Usenet, more than
fifty percent have over 20,000 readers apiece; the most
popular conferences are each seen by about 200,000 readers!
Mr. Reid's estimate of total Usenet readership is nearly TWO
Note that Mr. Reid's numbers are for Usenet only; they do
not include any information on other large public nets such
as RIME (PC-Relaynet), Fido, or dozens of others, nor do
they take into account thousands of private networks which
may have indirect public network connections. The total
number of users with access to public networks is unknown,
but informed estimates range to the tens of millions, and
the number keeps growing at an amazing pace -- in fact, the
rate of growth of this medium may be greater than any other
communications medium in history.
The special problems and risks which arise when one deals
with a large public audience are something about which most
computer users have little or no experience or
understanding. Until recently, those of us involved in
computer conferencing have comprised a small and rather
elite community. The explosion in network participation is
catching us all a little unprepared.
Among media professionals and celebrities, on the other
hand, the risks of conducting one's business in front of a
public audience are all too familiar. If the size of one's
audience becomes sufficiently large, one must assume that
examples of virtually every personality type will be
included: police and other agents of various governments,
terrorists, murderers, rapists, religious fanatics, the
mentally ill, robbers and con artists, et al ad infinitum.
It must also be assumed that almost anything you do, no
matter how innocuous, could inspire at least one person,
somewhere, to harbor ill will toward you.
The near-fatal stabbing of actress Theresa Saldana is a case
in point. As she was walking to her car one morning near her
West Hollywood apartment, a voice behind her asked, "Are you
Theresa Saldana?"; when she turned to answer, a man she had
never seen before pulled out a kitchen knife and stabbed her
After her lengthy and painful recovery, she wrote a book on
the experience ("Beyond Survival", 1986). In that book she
[pg 12] "... Detective Kalas informed me that the
assailant, whom he described as a Scottish drifter, had
fixated upon me after seeing me in films."
[pg 28] "... it was through my work as an actress that
the attacker had fixated on me. Naturally, this made
me consider getting out of show business ..."
[pg 34] "For security, I adopted an alias and became
'Alicia Michaels.' ... during the months that followed
I grew so accustomed to it that, to this day, I still
answer reflexively when someone calls the name Alicia!"
Or consider the fate of Denver radio talk show host Alan
Berg, who in 1984 died outside his home in a hail of
gunfire. Police believe he was the victim of a local
neo-nazi group who didn't like his politics.
We are reminded of the murders of John Lennon and Rebecca
Shaffer; the Reagan/Hinckley/Foster incident; and a long
string of other "celebrity attacks" of all sorts, including
such bizarre events as the occupation of David Letterman's
home by a strange woman who claimed to be his wife! There is
probably no one in public life who doesn't receive at least
the occassional threatening letter.
Of course, ordinary participants in network conferencing may
never attract quite the attention that other types of
celebrities attract. But consider the following, rather less
- On Friday night you post a message to a public conference defending an unpopular or controversial viewpoint. On Monday morning your biggest client
cancels a major contract. Or you are kept up all night by repeated telephone calls from someone demanding that you "stop killing babies"!
- You buy your teenage son or daughter a computer and modem. Sometime later you find your lawn littered with beer bottles and dug up with tire marks, or
your home vandalized or burglarized.
- One day you are nominated to the Supreme Court. Who
are all these strange people on TV claiming to be
your friends? How did that fellow know your position
on abortion? Your taste in GIFs?
Celebrities and other professional media personalities
accept the risks and sacrifices of notoriety, along with the
benefits, as part of their chosen careers. Should computer
conference participants be expected to do the same? And who
should be making these decisions?
When thou art at Rome, do as they do at Rome [Cervantes]
Older media seem to address the problems of privacy very
differently than computer media, at least so far. We are
not aware of ANY medium or publication, apart from computer
conferencing, where amateur or even most professional
participants are required to expose their true names against
their will. Even celebrities frequently use "stage names",
and protect their addresses and phone numbers as best they
When a medium caters specifically to the general public,
participants are typically given even greater opportunities
to protect their privacy. Television talk shows have been
known to go so far as to employ silhouetting and electronic
alteration of voices to protect the identities of guests,
and audience members who participate are certainly not
required to state their full names before speaking.
The traditional medium most analogous to computer
conferencing may be talk radio. Like conferencing, talk
radio is a group discussion and debate medium oriented
toward controversy, where emotions can run high. Programs
often center around a specific topic, and are always run by
a "host" whose role seems analogous in many respects to that
of a conference moderator. It is therefore worth noting
that in talk radio generally, policy seems to be that
callers are identified on the air only by their first names
(unless of course they volunteer more).
Finally, of course, authors have published under "pen names"
since the dawn of publishing, and newspapers and magazines
frequently publish letters to the editor with "name and
address withheld by request" as the signature line. Even
founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John
Jay, in authoring the seminal Federalist Papers in 1787 for
publication in the Letters columns of various New York City
newspapers, concealed their identities behind the now-famous
What would you think if someone called a radio talk show
demanding to know the identity of a previous caller? Such a
demand would undoubtedly be seen as menacing and
inappropriate in that context. Yet that same demand seems
to arise without much challenge each time a handle shows up
in a computer conference. The authors of this article feel
that such demands should always be looked upon as
suspicious, and that it would be beneficial for moderators
to take upon themselves the responsibility of making sure
that besieged handle-users are aware of their right to
refuse such inappropriate demands.
It is reasonable to assume that privacy policies in
traditional media are the result of hard-won wisdom gained
from long experience. Are we so arrogant that we cannot
learn from others? It is not hard to imagine the sorts of
problems and experiences which shaped these policies in the
old media. Will we have to wait for similar problems to
occur on the computer networks before we learn?
PRIVACY AND SURVEILLANCE
In an effort to identify people who fail to file tax
returns, the Internal Revenue Service is matching
its files against available lists of names and
addresses of U.S. citizens who have purchased
computers for home use. The IRS continues to seek
out sources for such information. This information
is matched against the IRS master file of taxpayers
to see if those who have not filed can be
identified. [COMPUTERWORLD, Sept. 1985]
Date: Thu, 23 May 91 11:58:07 PDT
From: [email protected]
Subject: The RISKS of Posting to the Net
I just had an interesting visit from the FBI. It seems that a posting I made to
sci.space several months ago had filtered through channels, caused the FBI to
open (or re-open) a file on me, and an agent wanted to interview me, which I did
voluntarily... I then went on to tell him about the controversy over Uunet, and
their role in supplying archives of Usenet traffic on tape to the FBI...
Also frequent are instances where computers are
seized incident to an unrelated arrest. For
example, on February 28, 1991, following an arrest
on charges of rape and battery, the Massachusetts
state and local police seized the suspect's computer
equipment. The suspect reportedly operated a 650-subscriber
bulletin board called "BEN," which is
described as "geared largely to a gay/leather/S&M
crowd." It is not clear what the board's seizure is
supposed to have accomplished, but the board is now
shut down, and the identities and messages of its
users are in the hands of the police. [CONSTITUTIONAL, LEGAL, AND ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR DEALING WITH ELECTRONIC FILES IN THE AGE OF CYBERSPACE, Harvey A. Silverglate and Thomas C. Viles]
Most of us have been brought up to be grateful for the fact
that we live in a nation where freedom is sacred. In other
countries, we are told as children, people are afraid to
speak their minds for fear they are being watched. Thank
God we live in America!
It would surprise most of us to learn that America is
currently among the premiere surveillance nations in the
world, but such, sadly, is indeed the case. Our leadership
in technology has helped the U.S. government to amass as
much information on its citizens as almost any other nation
in history, totalitarian or otherwise. And to make matters
worse, a consumer surveillance behemoth has sprung up
consisting of huge private data-collection agencies which
cater to business.
As Evan Hendricks, editor of "Privacy Times" (a Washington
D.C.-based newsletter) has put it: "You go through life
dropping bits and pieces of information about yourself
everywhere. Most people don't realize there are big vacuum
cleaners out there sucking it all up." [Wall Street
Journal, March 14, 1991].
To get an idea of how much of your privacy has already been
lost, consider the bits and pieces of information about
yourself which are already available to investigators, and
how thoroughly someone might come to know you by these clues
A person's lifestyle and personality are largely described,
for example, by his or her purchases and expenses; from your
checking account records -- which banks are required by law
to keep and make available to government investigators -- a
substantial portrait of your life will emerge. Credit card
records may reveal much of the same information, and can
also be used to track your movements. (In a recent case,
"missing" Massachusetts State Representative Timothy O'Leary
was tracked by credit-card transactions as he fled across
the country, and his movements were reported on the nightly
Then there are your school records, which include IQ and
other test results, comments on your "socialization" by
teachers and others, and may reveal family finances in great
detail. Employment and tax records reveal your present
income, as well as personal comments by employers and co-
workers. Your properties are another public record of your
income and lifestyle, and possibly your social status as
well. Telephone billing records reveal your personal and
business associations in more detail. Insurance records
reveal personal and family health histories and treatments.
All of this information is commonly accessed by government
and private or corporate investigators. And this list is
far from exhaustive!
Now consider how easily the computer networks lend
themselves to even further erosions of personal privacy. The
actual contents of our mail and telephone traffic have up to
now been subjected to deliberate scrutiny only under
extraordinary conditions. This built-in safety is due
primarily to the difficulty and expense of conducting
surveillance in these media, which usually requires extended
human intervention. But in the medium of computer
communications, most surveillance can be conducted using
automated monitoring techniques. Tools currently available
make it possible and even cost-effective for government and
other interests to monitor virtually everything which
Why would anyone want to monitor network users? It is well
documented that, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the FBI and
other agencies of government, in operations such as the
infamous COINTELPRO among others, spent a great deal of time
and effort collecting vast lists of names. As Computer
Underground Digest moderators Jim Thomas and Gordon Meyer
recalled in a recent commentary (CuD #3.42):
"A 1977 class action suit against the Michigan State
Police learned, through FOIA requests, that state and
federal agents would peruse letters to the editor of
newspapers and collect clippings of those whose politics
they did not like. These news clippings became the basis
of files on those persons that found there way into the
hands of other agencies and employers."
To get onto one of these government "enemies" lists, you
often needed to do nothing more than telephone an
organization under surveillance, or subscribe to the "wrong"
types of magazines and newspapers. Groups engaged in
political activism, including environmental and women's
rights organizations, were commonly infiltrated. The sort
of investigative reporting which uncovered these lists and
surveillances back in the '60s and '70s is now rare, but
there is little reason to assume that such activities have
ceased or even slowed. In fact, progressive computerization
of local police LEIU activities (Law Enforcement
Intelligence Units, commonly known as "red squads") suggests
that such activities may have greatly increased.
Within the realm of computer conferencing especially, there
is ample reason to believe that systematic monitoring is
being conducted by government and law-enforcement
organizations, and perhaps by other hostile interests as
well. In a recent issue of Telecom Digest
(comp.dcom.telecom), Craig Neidorf ([email protected]) reported
on the results of a recent Freedom of Information Act
request for documents from the Secret Service:
" ... The documents also show that the Secret Service
established a computer database to keep track of
suspected computer hackers. This database contains
records of names, aliases, addresses, phone numbers,
known associates, a list of activities, and various
[conference postings] associated with each individual."
But the privacy issues which surround computer
communications go far beyond the collection of user lists.
Both government and industry have long pursued the elusive
grail of personality profiling on citizens and consumers. Up
to now, such ambitions have been restrained by the practical
difficulty and expense of collecting and analyzing large
amounts of information on large numbers of citizens. But
computer communications, more than any other technology,
seems to hold out the promise that this unholy grail may
finally be in sight.
To coin a phrase, never has so much been known by so few
about so many. The information commonly available to
government and industry investi-gators today is sufficient
to make reliable predictions about our personalities,
health, politics, future behavior, our vulnerabilities,
perhaps even about our innermost thoughts and feelings. The
privacy we all take for granted is, in fact, largely an
illusion; it no longer exists in most walks of life. If we
wish to preserve even the most basic minimum of personal
privacy, it seems clear that we need to take far better care
on the networks than we have taken elsewhere.
Human beings are the only species with a history.
Whether they also have a future is not so obvious.
The answer will lie in the prospects for popular
movements, with firm roots among all sectors of the
population, dedicated to values that are suppressed
or driven to the margins within the existing social
and political order...[Noam Chomsky]
In your day-to-day social interactions, as you deal with
employers, clients, public officials, friends, acquaintances
and total strangers, how often do you feel you can really
speak freely? How comfortable are you discussing
controversial issues such as religion, taxes, politics,
racism, sexuality, abortion or AIDS, for example? Would you
consider it appropriate or wise to express an honest opinion
on such an issue to your boss, or a client? To your
Most of us confine such candid discussions to certain
"trusted" social contexts, such as when we are among our
closest friends. But when you post to a network conference,
your boss, your clients, and your neighbors may very well
read what you post -- if they are not on the nets today,
they probably will be soon, as will nearly everyone.
If we have to consider each post's possible impact on our
social and professional reputations, on our job security and
income, on our family's acceptance and safety in the
community, it could be reckless indeed to express ourselves
freely on the nets. Yet conferences are often geared to
controversy, and inhibitions on the free expression of
opinions can reduce traffic to a trickle, killing off an
important conference topic or distorting a valuable sampling
of public opinion.
More important still is the role computer networks are
beginning to play in the free and open dissemination of news
and information. Democracy is crippled if dissent and
diversity in the media are compromised; yet even here in the
U.S., where a "free press" is a cherished tradition, the
bulk of all the media is owned by a small (and ever-
shrinking) number of corporations, whose relatively narrow
culture, interests and perspec-tives largely shape the
Computer communication, on the other hand, is by its nature
very difficult to control or shape. Its resources are
scattered; when one BBS goes bust (or is busted!), three
others spring up in its place. The natural resiliency of
computer communications (and other new, decentral-ized
information technologies such as fax, consumer camcorders
and cheap satellite links) is giving rise to a new brand of
global "guerrilla journalism" which includes everyone, and
defies efforts at suppression.
The power and value of this new journalistic freedom has
recently shown itself during the Gulf War, and throughout
Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, as well as within the
U.S. Just think of the depth and detail of information
available on the nets regarding the Secret Service's recent
"Operation Sundevil" and associated activities, compared to
the grossly distorted, blatantly propagandistic coverage of
those same activities given to the general public through
the traditional media.
Historically, established power and wealth have seldom been
disposed to tolerate uncontrolled media, and recent events
in this country and elsewhere show that computer media are
sometimes seen as threats to established interests as well.
To understand the role of handles in this context, it is
useful to note the flurries of anti-handle sentiment which
have arisen in the wake of crackdowns such as Sundevil, or
the Tom Tcimpidis raid in the early 1980s. Although few
charges and fewer convictions have typically resulted from
such operations, one might be tempted to speculate that the
real purposes -- to terrorize the nets and chill freedoms of
speech and assembly thereon -- have been achieved.
In this way, sysops and moderators become unwitting
accomplices in the supression of freedom on the networks.
When real name requirements are instituted, anyone who fears
retaliation of any sort, by any group, will have to fear
participation in the nets; hence content is effectively
controlled. This consideration becomes especially important
as the nets expand into even more violent and repressive
countries outside the U.S.
We must decide whether freedom of information and open
public discussion are in fact among the goals of network
conferencing, and if so, whether handles have a role in
achieving these goals. As access to the networks grows, we
have a rare opportunity to frustrate the efforts of
governments and corporations to control the public mind! In
this way above all others, computers may have the potential
to shape the future of all mankind for the better.
A CALL TO ACTION
The move to electronic communication may be a turning
point that history will remember. Just as in
seventeenth and eighteenth century Great Britain and
America a few tracts and acts set precedents for
print by which we live today, so what we think and do
today may frame the information system for a
substantial period in the future.
[Ithiel de Sola Pool, "Technologies of Freedom", 1983]
There was a time when anybody with some gear and a few
batteries could become a radio broadcaster -- no license
required. There was a time when anyone with a sense of
adventure could buy a plane, and maybe get a contract to
carry mail. Those early technological pioneers were
probably unable to imagine the world as it is today, but
their influence is strongly felt in current laws,
regulations and policies with roots in the traditions and
philosophies they founded and shaped.
Today the new pioneers are knitting the world together with
computers, and the world is changing faster than ever. Law
and ethics are scrambling to keep up. How far will this
growth take us? No one can say for sure. But you don't
need a crystal ball to see that computer communications has
the potential to encompass and surpass all the functionality
of prior media -- print, post, telegraph, telephone, radio
and television -- and more. It seems reasonable to assume
that computer communications will be at least as ubiquitous
and important in the lives of our grandchildren as all the
older media have been in ours.
It will be a world whose outlines we can now make out only
dimly. But the foundations of that world are being built
today by those of us exploring and homesteading on the
electronic frontier. We need to look hard at what it will
take to survive in the information age.
In this article we have attempted to show, for one very
narrow issue, what some of the stakes may be in this future-
building game. But the risks associated with exposing your
name in a computer conference are not well defined, and
various people will no doubt assess the importance of these
risks differently. After all, most of us take risks every
day which are probably greater than the risks associated
with conferencing. We drive on the expressway. We eat
sushi. To some people, the risks of conferencing may seem
terrifying; to others, insignificant.
But let us not get side-tracked into unresolvable arguments
on the matter. The real issue here is not how dangerous
conferencing may or may not be; it is whether you and I will
be able to make our own decisions, and protect ourselves (or
not) as we see fit. The obvious answer is that users must
exercise their collective power to advance their own
interests, and to pressure sysops and moderators to become
more sensitive to user concerns.
To help in that effort, we would like to recommend the
following guidelines for user action:
- Bear in mind John Perry Barlow's observation that
"Liberties are preserved by using them". Let your
sysop know that you would prefer to be using a
handle, and use one wherever you can.
- Try to support boards and conferences which allow handles, and avoid those which don't.
- When using a handle, BEHAVE RESPONSIBLY! There will
always be irresponsible users on the nets, and they
will always use handles. It is important for the
rest of us to fight common anti-handle prejudices by
showing that handles are NOT always the mark of an
- Educate others about the importance of handles (but NEVER argue or flame anyone about it).
To sysops and moderators: We ask you to bear in mind that
authority is often used best where it is used least. Grant
users the right to engage in any harmless and responsible
behaviors they choose. Protect your interests in ways which
tread as lightly as possible upon the interests of others.
The liberties you preserve may be your own!
In building the computer forums of today, we are building
the social fabric of tomorrow. If we wish to preserve the
free and open atmosphere which has made computer networking
a powerful force, while at the same time taking care against
the risks inherent in such a force, handles seem to be a
remarkably harmless, entertaining and effective tool to help
us. Let's not throw that tool away.