Wired, Stalking, Defamation, and Lack of Journalistic Integrity

About three years ago Annalee Newitz wrote an article for Wired in their print magazine about online dating.

Jonathan Moore, and I were interviewed about how wireless networking vulnerabilities could be used for inappropriate dating behavior. I had no idea that this would unfold into painting me as a cybercreep:

There are two kinds of optimizers: those who write programs, and those who hack what other people have written. Kevin Burton is a perfect example of the latter. With his all-American look, Burton seems to have just stepped out of a Gap ad. But that doesn’t mean he can meet women on his own. For that, he relies on a sneaky little program he invented called the AIM Sniffer.

I did write an AIM sniffer but not to pick up women. The software was written as part of research I was conducting on wireless security and stalking. The premise was that with open wireless networking, unencrypted email, and the rise of social networks, someone could essentially stalk you and obtain far too much information about your personal life.

My intent was exactly the opposite. The hope was that by publishing the attack that makers of IM software and email would be more rigorous about adding encryption protocols which were enabled by default.

The software was never even executed in the wild. I only ran it against myself to prove that just by sending a few emails that I could lookup my account on Friendster and find the state I lived in and other personal information. The only ethical violation or creepy act I performed was to show it to Wired.

Don’t believe me? Jonathan Moore and I were in the same article.

Before I continue I should disclose that Jonathan is employeed by Tailrank (my company) but wasn’t at the time this article was written.

Jonathan and I were actively collaborating on the same research. The article positions him a bit differently:

These guys churn out hacks that thin the membrane between dating and stalking. They spend their afternoons chronicling and exploiting the vulnerabilities in dating sites and social networks. But the strange thing is, they’re not doing it to meet women. They don’t care about getting lucky. Moore, in fact, is married and has a baby daughter.

Looking like a young mope-rocker, Moore explains that he wants to call people’s attention to the potential dangers of dating and networking online. “The security holes in Friendster definitely make it easier for someone to stalk a stranger,” he warns, a hank of hair covering one eye. His friends nod in unison.

Really? Wasn’t I trying to do the same thing?

Personally, this just feels like defamation and tabloid-style journalism. I’m writing a letter to Wired’s editor on the subject demanding a written apology. I should have done so a long time ago!

About a month ago, Tailrank was lucky enough to be in the San Francisco Chronicle and Annalee took the time to take another swipe against me even though I thought that we resolved this three years ago with an apology:

… It’s so bleeding edge! Just like dot-coms and Web sites! Apparently this wacky new group of latte-slurping geeks prefer to be called Bedouins. One of the chief Bedouins is Kevin Burton, owner of trend-tracking site Tailrank. Fost interviews Burton extensively, portraying him as a hard worker who codes for long hours in a caffeine-fueled haze. But, dear readers, I have the real story behind why Burton loves to work in cafes. He picks up chicks by snarfing their AIM passwords on the cafe’s wireless network and messaging them. In an article I wrote for Wired a few years ago …

… but now thanks to Newitz’ latest blog post, her misrepresentation of my character is turning into fodder for repeated cheap-shot character attacks.

Last night at STIRR, while I was up on stage, Megan McCarthy picked up my cell phone and started going through my contacts. Apparently, Jonathan had to physically remove it from her hands.

Valleywag’s response was further character assassination.

The post on Valleywag is anonymous – if you’re going to personally attack someone at least have the courage to do it in public:

Burton has every right to be outraged. Or would, had he not such a history of snooping himself: the horny young entrepreneur boasts that he picks up women at San Francisco internet cafes by secretly monitoring their instant message conversations, and then popping up in a new window to make his approach.

The only thing I’m guilty of is a sarcastic sense of humor and trust that a friend wouldn’t write an inappropriate article about me for a few cheap page views.

I sent her a private email trying to understand why she would attack me again (she apologized for writing the Wired article three years ago) and was only dismissed. It was only then that I realized that she had a grudge against me and was using her position as a writer to take revenge.

What’s really sad is that she offered to write a positive story about Tailrank to “make it up” to me.

I’m sick of being defensive here and just letting this slide. In the past I was hoping the article would just evaporate so I could concentrate on my career. Apparently, that can’t happen with websites like Valleywag.

Update:

Ryan steps in to defend me:

I wish I could say I’m shocked that Valleywag’s Megan McCarthy picked up my pal Kevin Burton’s phone — and proceeded to look through it — when he stepped away for a moment at STIRR, but I’m not. I wish I could say I’m shocked they didn’t apologize to Kevin, but I’m not. Or that that they’d rehash the same bullshit story about Kevin being a WiFi-sniffing stalker (which he’s not), but I’m not shocked about that either.

… his perspective is great!

Update 2:

Annalee finally added a comment. I wanted to address her comments directly:

I would like to point out that at the time I wrote the Wired article four years ago, Kevin thought it was hilarious to talk about picking up girls using his AIM sniffer. Not only has he NEVER DENIED saying any of the things I printed in the article…

Are you joking? I sent you an email after the article appeared in Wired which included my objections.

… but he had ample opportunity to deny them when a Wired fact-checker called him before we published the article and WENT OVER EVERY SINGLE QUOTE with him. He approved them all.

That’s absolutely false Annalee and you know it.

Wired’s fact checker never asked me anything other than basic facts about the article.

The questions Wired asked me were:

“Do you work for a company named Rojo?”

“Are you 27 years old?”

“Did you write software that monitors IM?”

There were NO question asked about the body of the article. There were in total about five questions none of which would have given me any hint that you intended to assassinate my character.

Wired also asked me to sign a release without having access to the article. If you remember, I protested to both you AND Wired that I couldn’t sign a release without first having a clue about what you intended to write.

At the end of the day you assured me that I should sign the release because it was a good article and you spent a lot of time on it.

That’s probably why he never actually wrote a letter to Wired suggesting that we were libeling him.

I wrote you a personal email protesting that you misled me to which you apologized and blamed the negative tone of the article on your editor.

The reason I’ve never pursued anything with Wired directly was because once all 150k print copies went out the damage was already done.

Kevin may have been doing research with Jonathan Moore at that time, but when I interviewed them they gave very different reasons for their research.

It was only after the Wired article was published, and people in the blogosphere started telling Kevin it was creepy, that he began to get angry about it.

Again. You’re not being truthful and trying to mislead people.

You know full well that I protested the article as soon as it was published.

First he sent me a series of harrassing e-mails about how his girlfriend wouldn’t talk to him and for that reason I should “take the article down.” He never disputed the truth of the article; simply said it was hurting his dating life and making him upset. I have these e-mails and can publish them if you wish.

The tone of my emails were NEVER harassing but were simply protesting the tone of the article.

Are you honestly asserting that I don’t have the right to be angry about an article that was clearly intended to be insulting?


  1. I remember seeing some of the software from you and Jonathan during or around CodeCon 2004, months before the Wired article. Sniff the network for AIM traffic (port 5190) and bring up the user’s Friendster profile with more information.

    Other data traveling over the open network could have been further correlated against other data, but Friendster was the webapp of the moment and people were entering information about themselves online for the benefit of their friends, but also the entire world. Someone might be more likely to have an IM address associated with a social network profile than a completed AIM or Yahoo profile.

    Over three years ago at this point, so the details on your command-line interface are a bit fuzzy, but that’s what I remember.

  2. Some people you think are your friends will treat you extremely poorly and you can spend years trying to figure out why.

    Electronic communication makes it even more painful as you can reread your exact words and their exact words and not understand how the confusion arose.

    Some people seem to like making personal attacks annonymously or behind your back. You can try to take the high road, try to walk away, stay silent, but that won’t make things better. Sadly some people, possibly friends, possibly future contacts will be influenced by what is said and failing to defend yourself…

    But defending yourself especially if you stoop to their level or lose it or whatever doesn’t help your cause.

    Some people just cause problems then have no issue at all completely ignoring you, pretending you don’t even exist. Then if they need or want something all of a sudden they’ll talk to you…

    It is a sad, sad world.

  3. Kevin, I’m so glad you took the time to explain all this. seriously — you either define this shit, or it defines you.

    for the record, I think what Megan did was unacceptable. I’m a Gawker Media writer at Fleshbot (and a loyal one), and I have been for years, and what she did makes us all look like bottom feeders. we’re not. the comment she left in her ‘defense’ on your previous post reminds me of Congdon saying how she can break “rules” because she’s a blogger — bloggers have a bad rep in MSM for precisely these kinds of behaviors, deliberately blurring the lines of ethics and journalism, insisting she’s entitled to carry out her clearly transgressive actions, and using character assassination as a foil when getting caught with her hand in the cookie jar. or on your phone, as in this case.

    your post reflects what I love about blogging, the self-correcting mechanism that compels redress by challenging people’s actions. I too was disturbed by Annalee’s post about you (and by extension, about Jonathan) on Wired.

    oh — and let’s call on that blogger code of ethics, shall we? no, no, the *real* one:

    don’t be a douchebag.

  4. Violet blue – I hope that you enjoyed working for gawker, ’cause I expect that will be over soon.

  5. Geeeeeeez mate … shrug as one might, that’s gotta leave an empty feeling your guts. We make light of things, but being spit on even by a stranger leaves a scorch mark.

    Existentially … and I don’t wanna get trippy here … but the world doesn’t change when we wire it up. And the ways of the world don’t change either. (I just got sand-bagged today in a political forum … thought I was too wiley and experienced for that.)

    There are always going to be purile individuals around. The only safeguard is … uhhh … trusting that reputation will see us through. I hope you don’t let this get to you. Too much. ^5

  6. I would like to point out that at the time I wrote the Wired article four years ago, Kevin thought it was hilarious to talk about picking up girls using his AIM sniffer. Not only has he NEVER DENIED saying any of the things I printed in the article, but he had ample opportunity to deny them when a Wired fact-checker called him before we published the article and WENT OVER EVERY SINGLE QUOTE with him. He approved them all. That’s probably why he never actually wrote a letter to Wired suggesting that we were libeling him.

    Kevin may have been doing research with Jonathan Moore at that time, but when I interviewed them they gave very different reasons for their research.

    It was only after the Wired article was published, and people in the blogosphere started telling Kevin it was creepy, that he began to get angry about it. First he sent me a series of harrassing e-mails about how his girlfriend wouldn’t talk to him and for that reason I should “take the article down.” He never disputed the truth of the article; simply said it was hurting his dating life and making him upset. I have these e-mails and can publish them if you wish.

    I should also clarify that I was never Kevin’s “friend” — I knew him through the tech community, and from his work, and that’s why I interviewed him for the article. Equally, I had no personal beef with him.

    I did make fun of the article in the Chronicle, not so much because of Kevin but because of the ridiculous reporting by Dan Fost.

  7. Random Reader

    Hey, you need to go take a look at Valleywag. Those guys are out for blood. If they can humilate you anymore than they already have they will.

  8. Len Sassaman

    Kevin,

    I’m sorry you were foolish enough to give an interview to Annalee. Don’t worry — the best of us have fallen for that trap. A columnist who writes about the sort of things we’re interested in! Cool! Let’s tell her what we’re working on.

    I’ve got a collection of horribly (technically and scientifically) incorrect articles written my Ms. Newitz, before I stopped reading her crap out of disgust. I’ll send it to you, if you’d like to point people at them. The best way to deal with this hack is to show people the objectivelyabsurd things she’s written. Issues of “he said, she said” never end up with people fully convinced of one side or the other.

  9. Sonya Trejo

    It’s pretty awful that you still have to deal with this three years later. While he-said/she-said exchanges usually leave me feeling that both must be in the wrong, I’m tempted to believe you completely, as she just seems rather impervious to logic, reason, and reality. A recent example of her problems with clear thinking was the recent article in which she claims that a grad researcher in psychology “set out to prove a sexist assumption” when all the guy did was gather data on how male avatars behave in Second Life. When his response to her pretty much cleared his name from the accusations she ranted about, in a wonderous display of Red Queen logic she declared that he had LIED about his research, rather than realizing her intepretation of the research was wrong to begin with. (I’d go find the link but honestly the whole thing makes me queasy. It’s on AlterNet.) What was even more disturbing to me, though, was how many people just bought her perspective completely, and praised her, and decided the researcher must be a bad guy.






%d bloggers like this: