Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft

Anonymity of e-mail, Web postings easily stripped

05/10/99- Updated 01:09 AM ET

Anonymity of e-mail, Web postings easily stripped

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY

As soon as word of the deadly shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado got to Investigator Ron Horac of the Loudoun County Sheriff's office in Leesburg, Va., he knew it was going to be a bad week.

Horac's full-time job for the past year has been to serve search warrants to America Online, which is based in Loudoun County.

In the Columbine case, FBI agents went directly to the company within hours, seeking material Eric Harris was believed to have posted or stored on AOL's service about music, video games and bomb-making.

But Horac knew a deluge of legal requests was coming. He generally handles about 20 warrants a month, a number that's been steadily rising over the past few years. After the Columbine attack, things went right through the roof, and the pace continues.

"Just about every high school in the country had some form of copycat. We were getting a lot of emergency requests," he says.

Each of those requests came in the form of a search warrant, issued by a judge, that requires AOL to turn over any and all information about a user who has allegedly done something illegal, usually using AOL as a conduit to the Internet.

And it doesn't just affect AOL and its 17 million users. Internet service providers and message boards around the world are increasingly the focus of legal action.

Post something illegal, defamatory or harassing and expect a knock at the door, says Lt. Stephen Ronco of the San Jose, Calif., police high tech crime detail.

"If they think they're hiding behind the screen and that we won't find them, they're wrong. We will," says Ronco.