Surveillance in Cyberspace

By Andrews, Whit | American Journalism Review, March 1996 | Go to article overview
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Surveillance in Cyberspace

Andrews, Whit, American Journalism Review

Internet-savvy reporters using the computer network's public,forums to fin sources and spark dialogue may want to think twice be fore logging on. The vast re source that provides reporters with instant access to 13,000 topics of conversation and millions of participants could also make them vulnerable to spying.

In the segment of the Internet known as Usenet, where the popular discussion forums called "newsgroups" are found, people debate subjects as broad as polities and as specific as particle physics. Reporters join in, often seeking sources and background material. But what many of these reporters do not know is that new, highly sophisticated search engines"--free Internet-accessible software agents--subject them to surveillance.

"Market Place," a consumer-oriented television newsmagazine show in Canada, is one news organization that takes this threat of potential surveillance seriously. The newsmagazine's staff recently has begun taking measures to circumvent search-engine spies.

"Market Place7' researchers regularly post Usenet queries to find sources for upcoming stories. They try to locate consumers who participate in certain activities, such as scuba diving, or people who've had good and bad experiences with certain products.

But now, thanks to Usenet search engines, it is possible for anyone with Internet access to key in "Market Place's" Internet address, or any general topic known to be under research by the show's staff, and see all of the show's past postings. In less than a minute, the newsmagazine's research topics are laid out for competitors or corporate public relations people.

No one at "Market Place" has actually been scooped search-engine spies. But knowing the potential pitfalls of surveillance has definitely made the staff more cautious about posting to Usenet at all, according to "Market Place" researcher Kenton Vaughan.

Growing caution about privacy in cyberspace may be increasing proportionately to the growing number of search engines. At the moment the most widely known Usenet search engine is called DejaNews, located at Recently, IBM built a similar search engine called InfoMarket, found at

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