UPDATE: Da Paper reports that 'Mencken1951' is indeed a federal prosecutor: AUSA Sal Perricone.
Interesting article from Fox8 New Orleans about a regular in the nola.com comment sewer:
New Orleans - River Birch landfill owner Fred Heebe wants to know if an anonymous online commenter posting defamatory remarks is actually a government attorney investigating him. The poster uses the name "Henry L. Mencken1951."
"I'm here. Just watching our rights erode," was posted at 6:15 Wednesday morning on NOLA.COM. The opinionated anonymous poster is now the subject of a court filing by Fred Heebe. Mencken1951 has tackled a variety of issues onQline, from the Saints bounty program to the BP oil spill. His comments about Heebe, however, have stirred up a legal fight.
September 4th of last year he posted, "Heebe's goose is cooked." Heebe alleges the man behind Mencken is actually an assistant United States attorney. It's possible a judge could order NOLA.COM to reveal the identity of the poster.
My first thought on this is, why does Heebe think the poster is an AUSA? If "Mencken1951" dropped something in the comment sewer that was privileged, that could be problematic. Still, you'd have to prove that said AUSA was indeed the commenter. As the article points out, Heebe would start with nola.com by having the court order them to give up what they know about this user.
What does nola.com know? Users in the comment sewer are required to register. You can give a fake name, but you have to give a valid/verifiable email address. That's usually where someone trying to fly under the radar is revealed. People desiring to use a pseudonym on the web will make a new email address with a service such as Gmail or Yahoo. To get a Gmail account, one must already have a verifiable account. For most Internet users, the ultimate verifiable account is from their phone or cable company, their base internet provider. So, if you can get Google, for example, to give up the source email of a Gmail account, usually it's endgame right there.
It's possible still to get an email account without having one already. There are services that allow you to establish a series of "challenge questions" to recover a lost password, as opposed to requiring a backup email account. In these cases, all the email provider knows about you is the IP address of where you were when you created the account.
The forum where the anonymous user posts also usually logs the IP addresses of incoming comments, and that's what Heebe's after here. If you're posting from your house or from your mobile phone, the trail leads right back to you. Can this be beaten? Sure, post from a publicly-accessible wi-fi hotspot, such as a coffee shop. Now, the trail goes cold, unless you want to commit more resources to the search. If the coffee shop has security cameras, and you sit in the focal range of one of those cameras, you could be identified at the place/time of the post. Does every Starbucks or CCs in the New Orleans area monitor their patrons so tightly? Probably not. Additionally, a coffee shop wifi signal usually extends into the parking lot. Write your post up someplace else, pull into the parking lot, access the 'net, post your comment, get offline. If the poster is involved in a criminal investigation, the FBI, NOPD, or JPSO will have the technical resources to get this data, but for a civil defamation case? IANAL, but that sounds like a probable-cause problem to me.
There is one other piece of data that you give up when you access the Internet via public wifi: the MAC address of your computer's ethernet adapter. This is a hardware code that could be traced back to you. Think of this as similar to a Vehicle Identification Number on a car. To narrow this down, however, an investigator would have to get the address, which means dumping the coffee shop's router log. Then they'd compare that to a database of addresses to see which manufacturers use the hardware in your computer. Then the search could possibly be narrowed to the store where the computer was purchased. If you bought a computer from that batch at that store, that might be probable cause to get a search warrant. If you paid cash for it, you could give a fake name for the warranty registration. Maybe you'd get picked up by security cams at the Best Buy, maybe not. Again, is this something that would be done for a civil defamation case? Doesn't seem likely.
My point here is that it's possible to stymie the likes of Fred Heebe.
- Set up a truly anonymous email
- Don't use your personal mobile phone or your home Internet connection to create the email or post comments.
- Use a computer that is not easily traced back to you.
- Post from publicly accessible hotspots where you can't be identified via security cameras.
If you are involved in something criminal, the government may commit the resources to finding you, so this isn't foolproof. If you're a whistleblower blogger or forum poster/commenter, however, your chances of staying anonymous are solid.