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Who is the Face Behind the Sock?

BY Joshua Levy | Friday, September 29 2006

A few days ago The Hill reported that yet another campaign staffer doesn't understand that IP addresses (the network location of your computer) are traceable. Someone working for Rep. Charles Bass, a New Hampshire Republican, was posting comments on liberal blogs while pretending to be a Democrat. He or she was snuffed out when other bloggers discovered that the IP address from which the posts were coming was registered to the U.S. House of Representatives. A process of elimination led people to New Hampshire and the Bass campaign. The staffer, later revealed as Tad Furtado, Bass' policy director, resigned Monday.

And in New Jersey, the progressive blog Blue Jersey discovered that the IP addresses of several trolls (folks who post annoying comments on discussion forums) belonged to the people who were caught making "partisan" changes to Senator Robert Menendez' Wikipedia entry. Although Blue Jersey couldn't officially link the IP addresses to Menendez' opponent in the Senate Race, Tom Kean Jr. due to a firewall, they felt confident that his staffers were responsible.

The big surprise here is not that a campaign staffer would pose as someone else -- imagine that! -- but that they would post comments from a House computer, with a House IP address. Using a fake profile, or a sock puppet, to post on blogs and discussion forums is common across the Internet. However, it isn't recommended if you're, say, a staffer trying to alter the Wikipedia entry for your boss.

Over the past year staffers for Congressman Marty Meehan, Senator Norm Coleman, Senator Joe Biden, Congressman Gil Gutknecht, Senator Conrad Burns, Senator Diane Feinstein, Senator Tom Harkin, and Senator Tom Coburn have been caught deleting unsavory details from their bosses' Wikipedia entries. Staffers for Conrad Burns, for example, deleted a reference to his calling Arabs "ragheads." While this reveals a mistaken idea about Wikipedia -- Conrad Burns said that "there is no sanctity in Wikipedia" -- it also points to staffers' fundamental ignorance of the way the Internet works. Also, since one of its core functions is to track the input of contributors to an article, Wikipedia makes it especially easy to track IP addresses.

In any case, once a suspicious IP address is discovered, it isn't hard for determined investigators to discover the face behind the sock: a simple search for the IP address usually does the trick.

Dissident bloggers who live under repressive regimes understand the need for anonymity; Reporters Without Borders even released its handbook for bloggers and cyber-dissidents to teach them how to blog safely. Should we be referring our own elected officials to this handbook for tips?

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