University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Kathy Quirk

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May 20, 2009 
2009 in Review: Cyber-stalking research
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Photos by Kathy Quirk
Cyber -Stalking the Dean presentation

“Cyber-stalking” the dean of your college is not usually good for your grades or your future career.

However, with Dean Johannes Britz’s permission, a team of School of Information Studies (SOIS) students at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee searched out information on him for a class research project on cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying. Their project demonstrated how easy it is to find out detailed personal information on most anybody through the Internet. The project was one of eight done in SOIS faculty member Michael Zimmer’s Information Technology Ethics course.

Cyber-Stalking presentation Even students who’ve grown up with lowered privacy expectations by living their lives virtually online were surprised by some of the demonstrations.

The cyber-stalking project team – Emily Johnson, Tony Garcia and Anthony Scarpace – found that with a few clicks of the mouse they could find Britz’s home address, personal telephone number, a close-up view of his house and his neighborhood, his salary, his wife’s name and his birthday. In addition, they found a collection of photos of Britz, some dating back to conferences years ago, collected on a site called PIPL. “That’s a little creepy,” said Zimmer, who quickly found his own photo on PIPL as the class discussed the results.

And, for a mere $40 paid to an Internet search agency, the students could have unearthed even more detailed information, says Scarpace. Britz is a well-known person, Scarpace notes, but he and the others were amazed at how much personal information they could find. “It’s creepy,” he said, echoing Zimmer’s comments.

Other student teams in the class looked at the ethical issues surrounding topics ranging from the digital divide to the ethics of video gaming; from airport surveillance that includes full-body scanners to a demonstration of how easy it is to pull vast amounts of information from public databases; to the issues surrounding social networks and human implants. As part of their presentations, students reviewed a variety of new technologies, researched the ethical and privacy issues surrounding them, and came up with strategies to address those concerns.

Three students set up a fictitious Facebook account to discuss the pros and cons of publicly sharing your life on social networks. In the middle of their presentation, one student in the audience stepped up to join them, and quickly demonstrated how he could hack into an e-mail account listed on the Facebook site. He went to the e-mail address, pretended he’d lost the password and answered the “security” question using information posted on Facebook. 

Robert Nunez II, who plans to eventually get a master’s and doctorate in information ethics, was one of the students who tapped into a public directory as part of their research project. “We, the whole group, were kind of shocked that we could export all of the data and never got caught,” says Nunez, who is also vice president of the SOIS student organization. The information could easily be misused for spamming, stalking or identity theft, he noted.

Even students who’ve grown up with lowered privacy expectations by living their lives virtually online were surprised by some of the demonstrations. “The cyber-stalking presentation,” says Nunez, “really showed how easy it was to get all the information on a person for only $40.”

For him, at least, the class project led to some rethinking. “I’ve decided to get rid of the Facebook account. This was something that has been going through my mind for some time now, but what has been shown today really helped me make up my mind.”