Crimes, anonymity and the Net

Sites like Craigslist and CNN's iReport are at the center of two recent Net-enabled crimes. Is it time to reconsider the value of anonymity on the Net?

An ingenious bank robber dressed as a road maintenance worker pulled a heist worthy of Hollywood last week, thanks in part to the Internet.

The robber pepper-sprayed a guard outside the Bank of America in Monroe, Washington, grabbed a bag of cash from a Brinks truck, and jumped into a nearby creek, where his "get-away inner tube" awaited video. He then floated down to the Skykomish River where presumably he had a boat or a car or possibly a zeppelin stashed.

But that wasn't the genius part. Security guards couldn't pursue the robber because there were a dozen other people at the bank dressed exactly like him -- dust mask, safety goggles, work gloves, blue work shirt -- thanks to an ad the robber had placed on Craigslist. They'd all been instructed to show up at the bank at 11 am dressed for a job that promised US$28.50 an hour.

So is this what Senator Ted Stevens meant when said the Internet is really just a series of tubes? Maybe he just meant the Net is going down the tubes... like a bank robber down a river.

It was hardly the first time Craigslist has been used to mask a robbery. Last March, a home was ransacked after a pair of burglars ran an ad inviting people to come to the home and take everything inside it, to cover up a crime they'd already committed. There's at least one blog devoted solely to crimes committed via Craigslist. It's a long list.

Now the cops are hoping the bank robber left a trail of digital breadcrumbs behind. In this way this story is similar to last week's "citizen journalism" snafu, where someone planted a fake story about Steve Jobs on CNN's iReport site, possibly to drive down Apple's stock price. Now the SEC would like to have a word with an iReports user employing the handle "Johntw." Anybody out there know him?

Whether they'll have any luck finding these crooks depends on how digitally savvy they were. If the bad guys used proxy services to mask their IP addresses -- and those services don't maintain user logs -- it's unlikely law enforcement will get very far.

Does that mean online anonymity is a bad thing? Not necessarily. These same proxy services can be used by political dissidents in regimes like China or Iran, where saying the wrong thing online can land you in prison -- or worse.

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Robert X. Cringely

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