Gloria Brame, Ph.D.

Vanity Fair Tries (and Fails) to Parse the Meaning of Internet Crime

Filed By Gloria Brame, Ph.D. | September 07, 2009 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: Craigslist killer, Internet crime, online privacy, sex crimes

A new investigative piece from Vanity Fair takes a detailed look at the people, events and politics of the Craigslist murder that made headlines this summer. It starts off well, acknowledging that this murder (like all murders) is "a very human mystery":

The "Craigslist Murder" was a crime made possible by the Internet, and the prime suspect was apprehended through online sleuthing. But the killing of Julissa Brisman allegedly by Boston University medical student Philip Markoff is still a very human mystery, with dark sexual overtones and surprising contradictions.

But that point -- that the Internet is only one of many ways in which criminals find victims -- is then lost in the details of the crime and its many players. In the end, the reporter and her interviewees all seem to suggest that the Internet is a dangerous place because we don't have cops around to police us.

Pardon me, but in the real world, where we do have cops to police us, people still commit murders, all the time, for all kinds of sick and sad reasons. Before you police the Internet shouldn't you police every bar and club in the US, which is where most murderers find their victims? Wait: how about policing every home too, since most murders and violent crimes are not committed by strangers but by the people you know best and often live with? Or as cops like to say when questioning suspects, "before you look at the outlaws, look at the in-laws."

I'll recommend this article to anyone who is interested in true crime stories or has a special interest in this case, and would like to know more about the people involved and the impact it has had on their loved ones, but if you're looking for a rational voice to put the Internet in perspective as a social phenomenon, rather than a pit of vipers where anyone may be a victim at any time, you'll need to keep looking.

This paragraph, however, is of vital interest to everyone, if only to remind us that "Internet" and "privacy" don't belong in the same sentence. Assumptions about privacy you make in real life cannot be superimposed onto the Internet. The Internet is not 3-D and 3-D is not the Internet: confuse the two at your own peril. This paragraph pretty much nails the lesson every Net user needs.

Few Americans, even those from the younger, Internet generation, seem to understand how easily their clicks and text messages can be detected, and how little privacy any of us have anymore. Every search, every posting, every text message or Twitter, leaves a cyber footprint. The content of every e-mail sent by any one of us is kept by the Internet service provider and stored for a period of time, usually six to nine months. Google and Gmail used to store e-mails indefinitely; now they claim they're within the same range, but all the e-mail we choose to keep until we delete it can also be accessed by the provider. "If you can see them, they can see them," says Rasch.

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It's weird how some of these folks are still dealing with The Internet as a phenomenon. Of course it's unsafe. Life isn't safe. Be smart and stuff.

But the real problem is that, unlike in real life, you can't move to the suburbs/exurbs, exclude anyone you deem dangerous from your neighborhood, and then fill your life with work, school, and church and never go out. If you want to use the internet or create a space online, you either have to exclude everyone except for a list of people or you have to deal with everyone.

Won't someone think of the children! (As versus focusing on our own safety and foibles!)