When Online Hearsay Intrudes on Real Life 
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 When Online Hearsay Intrudes on Real Life

When Online Hearsay Intrudes on Real Life


George Frey for The New York Times
Dmitry Pruss says an anonymous online message nearly cost him his job and
his work visa. He was with his son Tim, left, and daughter Danielle in Utah,
where he now lives.

For anyone who ever thought that the online world was merely "virtual," with
no effect on life in the real world, Dmitry Pruss can tell you otherwise.

Never heard the name? That is not surprising. The incident that threatened
to wreck Mr. Pruss's career as a scientist happened more than half a decade
ago, and was little known outside of the online discussion groups, where it
started. But before it was over, rumors about him that had been spread
through online attacks left him fearful of losing his job and of being
deported to Russia. And the rumors followed Mr. Pruss, 38 and now living in
Utah, even when he applied for other jobs.
As more people spend more of their lives online, the risk grows that
erroneous information and misimpressions about them could spill into their
daily lives. Anyone - including friends and family, future employers and
prospective suitors - can type a name into a popular search engine like
Google or Yahoo and find online postings or tidbits of information about
that person. ("Google-ing" has now become a verb.)
"It's becoming harder and harder to draw a distinction between the real
world and the virtual world," said Lauren Weinstein, creator of an online
discussion group called the Privacy Forum. "They've become so intertwined
now that most of the same problems and risks that we associate with the real
world are coming from the virtual side - and a whole lot of them that nobody
thought of."
While the totals are impossible to gauge, Mr. Pruss is certainly not the
only person singed by his online life. Brock N. Meeks, a journalist in
Washington, believes that his activities in the virtual world sometimes held
him back in his real-world job searches. While working for Communications
Daily, a high-technology trade journal, in the early 1990's, he began
writing a column about technology in his spare time and distributed it over
the Internet. Unlike the straightforward business journalism that appeared
in Communications Daily, the writing in the column, which Mr. Meeks called
"{*filter*}Wire Dispatch," was highly opinionated, profane and savagely funny.
"It was kind of a game," Mr. Meeks, now 45, said of the rough-hewn persona,
but the writing style reflected the raw, impassioned quality of much online
discourse, so it "reached the culture of the Internet."
The online persona established him as a dogged, sharp commentator. But more
than once, he said, when he applied for jobs at national newspapers, editors
who knew of his online work were wary. He said an editor at The Washington
Post told him, "I expected an angry old guy."

Ultimately, the Internet column worked in his favor: it brought him to the
attention of MSNBC.com, which hired him as a technology reporter. He has not
written the online column in a while - day-to-day coverage of the Microsoft
antitrust trial, among other assignments, eliminated his free time - but he
says he is thinking about bringing back the column from the digital
mothballs. He is not sure, however, if he will bring back the angry guy.
"I'm not as angry as I used to be; the savage profanity will be gone," he
said. "Everybody grows up."
The nightmare for Mr. Pruss was based on things he had never written. A
Russian scientist working at the National Institutes of Health on an
"exchange scholar" visa in the early 1990's, Mr. Pruss would take part in
online discussions with other expatriates of the former Soviet Union on
Usenet, a worldwide network that held thousands of discussions on most every
conceivable topic. (Usenet, which operates like a bulletin board on which
people post messages and others read and respond to them over time, predates
the World Wide Web, having been first developed in 1979 by Duke University
researchers.) The groups that focused on Russian themes were known to be
among the rougher neighborhoods of the online world, where participants
would exchange angry messages in "flame wars," as they are known; the
scheming that ensued was tinged with a bitterness worthy of a Politburo
Mr. Pruss still does not know why his attacker chose him. What he does know
is that one day in 1994, an allusion he made to the Holocaust from his
government agency account was taken out of context and reposted in a vicious
note sent to hundreds of newsgroups, especially those devoted to discussion
of Jewish topics. The attack message against Mr. Pruss read in part: "As a
religious Jew I am OUTRAGED that my tax money is used to pay for Internet
access for the notorious Jew-hating Russian punk." It included contact
information for officials of the National Institutes of Health.
In the next weeks, many people who read that message, and believed it,
contacted the N.I.H., and officials there began to investigate. Mr. Pruss, a
mild-mannered scientist and a Jew himself, was stunned by the attack. And he
was petrified that the agency might fire him and that he would have to
return to Russia with his family, effectively ending his career.

The message was put together and posted by one of a group of online
combatants who had picked other targets in the past, especially within the
Soviet- theme discussion groups.
Ultimately, Mr. Pruss said, his employers determined that he was not at
fault, although they took away his online account and ordered him to submit
to psychiatric counseling. They did, however, renew his work visa. N.I.H.
officials refused to comment, except to confirm that Mr. Pruss had been
employed as a molecular biologist on a temporary visa at the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Mr. Pruss found that the Usenet stories about him continued to circulate and
haunt him even after he saved his government job. He said two prospective
employers asked him about the incident in interviews, although both of them
ultimately offered him jobs. He is now employed at a biomedical research
company, Myriad Genetics in Salt Lake City, where he can continue to work in
the field he loves and, in his free time, indulge his passion for hiking and
skiing with his three children. He has also gained permanent resident status
in the United States.
How did his prospective employers find out about an incident that occurred
in {*filter*}space? "Years later, I'm still wondering," he said.
Mr. Pruss, who said he was wrong to have engaged in online discussions using
his work e-mail account, has pondered some of the possibilities: Did the job
interviewers frequent the Jewish newsgroups used by the attackers to publish
their messages? Did other scientists to whom he sent job applications also
hear of the incident, he asks, "but didn't wish to bring it up, and just
kicked me out of the list of applicants?" Or, he asks, did one of the people
he listed as a job reference "selectively leak the story - then this person
didn't believe me, most likely, while also agreeing to be on my reference
list?" He summarizes the situation succinctly: "Utterly weird."

Experts in the field of privacy and background checks agree. They say the
cases of Mr. Pruss and Mr. Meeks are extreme examples, and that few
employers these days go online to investigate new hires - or at least
acknowledge doing so.
True, the Web has been a godsend for many professions - detectives,
journalists, and lawyers, for example - in hunting down people and finding
But many employers have been reluctant to add the new dimension of online
search to the vetting process, largely because of privacy and potential
legal concerns, said Michael D. Allison, chief executive of the Internet
Crimes Group, an investigative and consulting firm in Princeton, N.J.
"What you do off duty is your time," Mr. Allison said, noting that his
company is generally called in when a current employee is suspected of
criminal wrongdoing.
Dara Herbst, chief executive of the Certified Reference Checking Company in
St. Louis, said she, too, had not yet been asked to include an online scan
as part of a background examination of a job candidate. She did not think
that such scans were a good idea anyway.
Mr. Weinstein of the Privacy Forum said that if companies began going online
to gather information on new hires, "a big yellow caution sign is in order
when dealing with any of the info from those kinds of sources."
"The potential for finding misinformation or false information is very, very
high in a network environment," Mr. Weinstein added. He compared the
situation to getting an anonymous hate letter. "The risk that a piece of
garbage coming back to you, by design or by accident, could be very, very
high," he said. "Woe to he who does not pay attention to that fact."
Nonetheless, Mr. Weinstein and other privacy experts say consumers can
protect themselves by doing occasional searches of their own names - a
process called "vanity searching" - so that they know what, if anything, is
being said about them online. Then they could counter it effectively if it
came up, say, in a job interview.
Mr. Pruss says he no longer frequents the online newsgroups, having been
burned so badly before. His attackers are still out there, after all. But,
he says wistfully that the groups were a lifeline for a lonely Russian
scientist newly arrived in a bewildering country. "This was a way for me to
find some real-world friends," he said. "As old friends drift away, I miss
the thing."
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Thu, 09 Oct 2003 19:34:45 GMT
 When Online Hearsay Intrudes on Real Life
I think I'm going to change my name.  Maybe you should too Joel.
Formerly, Pat Buss RDH

Fri, 10 Oct 2003 05:50:22 GMT
 [ 2 post ] 

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