Warning signs were there

2009-08-06 22:03

kalahari.com

New York - In hindsight, it seems so obvious. One looks back at the creepy online ramblings of a tortured soul like George Sodini and realises people should have known all along of the horrors to come.

That is, if anyone actually read Sodini's webpage before he sprayed bullets into a suburban Pittsburgh fitness class, killing three women and then himself.

But in an age where publishing your thoughts online is as easy as scribbling them in a notebook - where millions broadcast the details of their lives to anyone who will listen - were Sodini's murderous rants the equivalent of a cybertree falling in a cyberforest?

Certainly, anyone happening upon Sodini's tortured online thoughts before his rampage Tuesday would have had ample cause for alarm.

His date of death is listed right at the top, under his name and birthdate: "DOD 8/4/2009." Later, a description of his first attempt at what he calls "this project," in January. "It is 20:45: I chickened out! I brought the loaded guns, everything. Hell!"

And then, on Monday: "Tomorrow is the big day."

It was more than enough to alert authorities, to be sure, even without Sodini's hate-infused musings on his inability to find a girlfriend and how long it had been since he'd had sex. But did anyone know?

"Perhaps no one at all ever read this website," says Chris Hoofnagle, a lecturer at the Berkeley Law School who specialises in internet privacy. "There's this obscurity in being in a cacophony of different voices."

How many voices? According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, some 14% of adult internet users said in a 2007 survey that they had created or worked on their own webpage.

To put that in perspective, 79% of US adults are internet users, according to an April 2009 Pew survey. "So assuming the segment of people who have created or worked on their own webpage is at least as big as it was in 2007, that 14% of internet users would translate into roughly one in 10 US adults," says Pew researcher Mary Madden.

At the same time, and perhaps as a result, people appear to be becoming more and more comfortable with less and less privacy, Madden says. For example, a quarter of internet users have posted something online using their real name.

"In the age of digital footprints, those people who don't have some kind of online trails left behind them are really becoming the exception rather than the rule," Madden says.

Online trail

So Sodini certainly had an online trail. But it was on a personal webpage, not on a social network, and that makes a big difference, notes Madden. "His webpage may have been posted to an audience of one," she says. By contrast, "people become more accountable when they're connected to a network. There are cases where kids post things on their pages -perhaps suicidal tendencies - and that will raise an alarm."

In February, Jesse Coltrane in Camden, New Jersey, was corresponding with a despondent California teenager when suddenly he saw, on his webcam, the teen starting to cut the skin of his forearm with a razor blade. The teen then logged off his computer.

Coltrane called Sacramento police. By the time officers found the teen he had decided not to go through with the attempt.

Months earlier, on the other hand, some internet users did nothing as they watched a Florida college student, Abraham Biggs, kill himself by overdosing on pills in front of his webcam on a site for bodybuilders. Biggs' father said those who watched - and the website operators, too -shared blame for his son's death.

While that latter case evokes images of an internet-age Kitty Genovese story - hers is the now-challenged tale of a New York woman killed in 1964 while callous bystanders ignored her calls for help - one can't say the same in the case of one man venting on a webpage.

"There are a lot of personal websites where people vent," says Hoofnagle, the Berkeley lecturer.

Is there any way to monitor these sites, and perhaps prevent crimes like Sodini's killing spree? "To my knowledge, there's no organised effort to look for the foreshadowing of this type of event," Hoofnagle says.

Some federal agencies do monitor websites as part of their enforcement of specific federal statutes, like those barring crimes against the president or interstate child abuse or some terrorist statutes. In some cases, if they stumble upon indications of potential criminal activity outside their jurisdiction, they refer it to state or local law enforcement.

The numbers are certainly daunting. There are about 100 million registered domain names in the world, says Christine Jones, general counsel for godaddy.com, the world's largest domain registrar. Her company has 36 million of them (Sodini's domain is not one.) It depends on third parties to report issues, and it has two departments investigating public complaints, both of which operate 24/7.

"We do as much as we can do," Jones says. "For us, on our scale, it's impossible to monitor all the domains ourselves - no number of humans could do that, especially because websites can be changed all day."

Worldwide audience

Sodini's site had been taken down by Wednesday afternoon.

Jones says that when she saw the content on it, she was surprised that no one had seen it and alerted authorities because he had apparently been writing dangerous things for months - though it remains unclear when the webpage was posted and whether it had been updated repeatedly since November or posted in its entirety recently.

"Even one person who read that would probably have alerted authorities," Jones says. "There must have been no traffic on that site."

Sodini's domain was registered with DomainDiscover.com, a San Diego-based company, but it was hosted by a provider in India, gohsphere.com, which could not immediately be reached. At DomainDiscover, supervisor Jenny Dempsey said her company's security department does monitor traffic on sites, but not sites that are not hosted by them.

Allegheny County police Superintendent Charles Moffatt said on Wednesday that investigators would try to determine if anyone had read the website early enough to stop the attack.

As for Sodini himself, he seems to have known he would only get page views once he was gone.

"Why do this?? To young girls? Just read below," he writes at the beginning. "I kept a running log that includes my thoughts and actions, after I saw this project was going to drag on."

And now, tragically, he has not an audience of one, but a worldwide audience.
- SAPA
Read more on:    united states  |  shooting
NEXT ON NEWS24X
SHARE:

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
0 comments
Comments have been closed for this article.
 

Inside News24

 
/News
 

7 tips for the ultimate family camping trip

Taking the kids on a camping trip can be one of the most memorable holidays they will ever have!

 
 

Where were you when you last felt alive?

BASE jump off the world’s tallest building!
Stand up paddler rides over shark!
Bear Grylls’ top 10 things kids should do outdoors
You HAVE to see this MTB Tsunami Fip!

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

Deal of the week!

20% off Afrikaans books, music and DVDs. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Save up to R1000 on Hisense smartphones!

View the large range of Hisense smartphones. Buy today and save up to R1000!

Hot gaming titles – available for pre-order!

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare Day Zero Edition, Far Cry 4, Grand Theft Auto 5 and more. Pre-order now!

Get a free eBook

Buy 3 eBooks and get the cheapest FREE. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Bargain box – 60% off

Reduced prices, very limited stock. While stocks last. Hurry and shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

Pushing too hard and doing too much may have left you feeling drained and overwhelmed. You may need time out to recharge and reset...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.