Privacy or Criminal Activities? January 31, 2008 9:42 AM   Subscribe

It seems like there have been several questions lately about how to do things that make it easy to do illegal things or hide one's identity generally in a way that does not seem to have a legitimate purpose, or at the very least seems to only have a vague "I want to avoid harassment" or "I want to protect my privacy" purpose. What gives?

I think privacy and anonymity are important, but what is the policy about questions in which the poster seeks assistance doing something that doesn't seem to have a legitimate purpose? Here are a few examples: anonymous phone numbers and anonymous P.O. box. I don't have a problem with questions like this: privacy question, but the other recent posts just rub me the wrong way, like "just for reference, how so I break the law without getting caught?" would. To me, the line is between "how do I prevent wrongful access to or use of my personal information" and "how do I prevent my actions from being able to be connected to me?" The first two examples, in my opinion, are on the wrong side of this line.

Thoughts?
posted by iknowizbirfmark to Etiquette/Policy at 9:42 AM (110 comments total)

The PO Box guy wasn't asking how to break the law, he was asking if there were rules against getting a PO Box without identification.

In a free country, asking what the rules are is not grounds for suspicion.
posted by unixrat at 9:49 AM on January 31, 2008 [19 favorites]


They're not on the wrong side of the law. It's not illegal to have an anonymous PO box or an anonymous phone number. But of course you could have a car and use it for a getaway if you robbed a bank, and that'd be against the law, so maybe we should ban questions about cars around here. Criminals seem to like using cars a lot, after all.
posted by koeselitz at 9:52 AM on January 31, 2008


Since you ask, I think this thread should be closed.
posted by absalom at 9:52 AM on January 31, 2008


Avoiding harassment and protecting privacy seem like perfectly legitimate purposes to me. Neither poster is asking for anything illegal. I'd hate to see an AskMe where you need a vetted "acceptable" reason to ask for advice about perfectly legal privacy-protecting services.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 9:53 AM on January 31, 2008


The anonymous P.O. Box question doesn't really bother me, because I can think of some perfectly valid and non-illegal reasons for wanting to get mail without it being directly tied to your entire existence ... but your anonymous phone number example gives a perfectly valid reason right in the question: I am in need of a service that can provide a free, disposable phone number for posting on flyers, so I can be reached on my cell. Unless you think putting your own personal phone number on any sort of publicly posted notice is a good idea?

Personally, in this day and age of the government poking its nose into everything, I can appreciate trying to get off the grid a little just to maintain a feeling of some level of privacy. Every time I use my cell phone, I wonder if it's being recorded and vetted for potential "evil doing" even though the only things I ever talk about are bread recipes, cats, and my crazy cousins.
posted by Orb at 9:55 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


I find it extremely suspicious that the person who posted this callout doesn't list their real name in their profile. That kind of anonymity is usually the mark of a criminal.
posted by koeselitz at 9:55 AM on January 31, 2008 [28 favorites]


I think this is a stupid callout.
posted by BeerFilter at 9:56 AM on January 31, 2008


Jesus Christ, can someone please help me figure out how to jimmy open this fucking ATM before the cops show up, hypothetically?
posted by Divine_Wino at 9:57 AM on January 31, 2008 [14 favorites]


Upon further review I came up with a few questions that may legitimately arouse suspicion, but I don't think that the PO Box question was one of them.
posted by unixrat at 9:57 AM on January 31, 2008


Thanks for pointing out those questions, because I would like both an anonymous phone number and an anonymous mailing address. You see, I want to start a P2P drug trafficking service. I don't handle the drugs or the money, I just store the real-world equivalent of torrent files.
posted by Pastabagel at 10:01 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


Seriously, what the fuck, people? Why don't you call the cops every time you see a question you think could relate to criminal activity? Probably because you realize the cops would sigh and tell you that unless there's a crime to report, then you're wasting their time.

Flag it and get on with your busy-body lives.
posted by BeerFilter at 10:04 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


Having an anonymous PO Box doesn't make a person invisible to surveillance cameras.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:06 AM on January 31, 2008


Having an anonymous PO Box doesn't make a person invisible to surveillance cameras.


That reminds me, anyone know of any good ways to become invisible to surveilance cameras? I'm not planning on doing anything illegal, but there are reasons that I'd rather not get into that require me to not show up on the security tapes.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:10 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


Questions like this are a blood harvest for Carnivore.
posted by breezeway at 10:12 AM on January 31, 2008


Personally I just assume that any AskMe question that could possibly be interpreted as a legal quest is a legal quest. It saves me on stomach lining and prevents the requirement that the asker disclose a lot more background information than is any of our business.

And, happily, anything I'm uncomfortable with I can simply choose not to answer.
posted by phearlez at 10:13 AM on January 31, 2008


just for reference, how do I break the law without getting caught?

Careful planning.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:14 AM on January 31, 2008


anyone know of any good ways to become invisible to surveilance cameras?

Ask a cephalopod.
posted by Dave Faris at 10:15 AM on January 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


Having an anonymous PO Box doesn't make a person invisible to surveillance cameras.

For that you need a potion, like in the movie.
posted by Mister_A at 10:15 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


⇒iknowizbirfmark: "Thoughts?"

I think you're probably a supporter of the PATRIOT Act and warrant-less wire tapping.
Is this some sort of Godwin lemma?
posted by Plutor at 10:18 AM on January 31, 2008


anyone know of any good ways to become invisible to surveilance cameras?

You need a ghillie suit. Nevermind that it will make you look like Chewbacca. Probably should leave the rifle at home if you're picking up your mail at the PO, too.
posted by jamaro at 10:21 AM on January 31, 2008


Can someone help me kill a man in Reno - hy-po-thet-tick-ly?
posted by Jofus at 10:22 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is an inane callout.

You should get in touch with my maiden Aunt, who needs some help caring for the many cats she has adopted through a rescue organization. I warn you, she can use a bad word now and again, so be prepared to scold her when you hear those "damn"s and "shoot"s. We're all trying to break her of the habit, but she just uses the money from her swear jar to buy more cat food.
posted by OmieWise at 10:26 AM on January 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


Sorry, iknowisbirfmark. Here's a real answer:

In these cases, where one could lean toward "let's answer helpfully" or toward "this might be used for illegal stuff," mathowie has generally tended to lean toward the helpful answer. I think that's a good idea, and often a good idea in society in general, at least the way we set it up. It's sort of an extension of the 'innocent until proven guilty' concept. He's not likely to get in trouble because of it, and there's not necessarily any real moral obligation to put a stop to it.
posted by koeselitz at 10:32 AM on January 31, 2008


Guidelines, not rules. GUIDELINES, NOT RULES!
posted by Divine_Wino at 10:34 AM on January 31, 2008


Sys Rq: Having an anonymous PO Box doesn't make a person invisible to surveillance cameras.

Mister_A: For that you need a potion, like in the movie.


Or a suit, like in the other movie.
posted by koeselitz at 10:34 AM on January 31, 2008


I knew a kid in high school that could make that Predator clicking sound perfectly. You'd be looking for the laser sight dots on and expecting a hole shot through your chest cavity.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:40 AM on January 31, 2008


A vague "I want to avoid harassment" or "I want to protect my privacy" purpose is good enough. One shouldn't have to provide excuses for wanting privacy. And yes, what koeselitz said, innocent until proven guilty, and if it's not likely to get mathowie thrown in the pokey, historically it's fair game.
posted by mumkin at 10:41 AM on January 31, 2008


iknowizbirfmark, you hand-wringing cryptofacist.
posted by boo_radley at 10:42 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


Dear AskMeOnlyUser,

Welcome to "The Rest of Metafilter."

We here at TRoM have a long established history of debating topics like (but not limited to) this one. Hammering out the finer points of policy such as this has been an involved, difficult and often histrionic experience for those of us who hang around TRoM regularly - complete with injuries, casualties and even downright dirty name calling. The bright side of it all is that, with naught but a simple search of the metatalk archives, the collected fruits of our labors are available to you free of charge, without having to get involved in all that bothersome argument yourself.

But more importantly, those archives serve as a warning sign. A sort of "I'd turn back if I wuz you," if you will. Because here at TRoM we can get awfully snippy when someone with almost no community involvement in the site decides to come along and let us know what he has decided is annoying him about metafilter today. Don't misunderstand. You're not a bad person, although I'm sure several of TRoM's longer term members think you are. But TRoM isn't for the faint of heart, and it's especially not for the unprepared.

So hang out for a while, get to know the place a bit. Build up some resistances to fire and check out our history some. Once you realize that TRoM isn't just some annex to AskMe, you'll find we're a bunch of sadistic evil motherfuckers who probably aren't worth the time it takes to lookd own at but who are nonetheless sort of amusing to hang around with, if that's your thing. I mean, shit, what have you got to lose, right?




Run!
posted by shmegegge at 10:44 AM on January 31, 2008 [13 favorites]


And who cares if it's illegal? At least in the US, we have a lot of stupid laws, but I'm thinking marijuana questions and/or kinky sex wouldn't bother most Mefites. Seems like the moral code of AskMe isn't whether the activity is illegal, per se, but rather "is this question/answer likely to hurt somebody?"
posted by LordSludge at 10:47 AM on January 31, 2008


just for reference, how do I break the law without getting caught?

get elected president
posted by pyramid termite at 10:51 AM on January 31, 2008 [11 favorites]


Jesus Christ, can someone please help me figure out how to jimmy open this fucking ATM before the cops show up, hypothetically?

Divine_Who FTW.
posted by sneakin at 10:53 AM on January 31, 2008


We should just ask them to use the "suspicious" tag and everything will be ok.
posted by micayetoca at 10:54 AM on January 31, 2008


Also, Divine_Wino. Yup, I have glasses. Nope, I'm not wearing them.
posted by sneakin at 10:54 AM on January 31, 2008


Hang on, people who are concerned about privacy aren't posting lengthy personal justifiying details in their questions? WHAT THE FUCK?

Outrage.
posted by bonaldi at 10:55 AM on January 31, 2008


I actually flagged all of those posts as "saw something, said something."
posted by sneakin at 10:55 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have to side with the opinion that "I don't feel like these people have a good enough reason for wanting to do something legal" is a B.S. callout. The "this AskMe could lead to... gasp... CRIME" has been done to death in MeTa as well, there's no point for this thing to go on.
posted by nanojath at 10:56 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]




I personally love questions that seem to skirt the law, because I assume that the poser is someone just like me. Someone who, held back by the merest sliver of a conscience, the faintest line drawn in the sand from their rightful role of Evil Overlord, waits, researching and hoarding their ill-gotten knowledge of criminal practices, for that day when, ready to snap at the merest provocation, someone finally asks "So, should we allow this kind of stuff on Metafilter?".
posted by misha at 11:11 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


(see above for case in point. Thanks, exlotuseater, for finding that reference for me!)
posted by misha at 11:12 AM on January 31, 2008


Oh, dear. I'm not sure what you were thinking with this callout, but clearly -- and I think it's something that really is quite clear to anyone who's paying attention -- the problem with your entire line of thinking here is that
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:14 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


"questions in which the poster seeks assistance doing something that doesn't seem to have a legitimate purpose? Here are a few examples: anonymous phone numbers and anonymous P.O. box. "

How about:

* Once my promotion/activity is over, I want to avoid spammy calls/mail to my regular phone/mailbox
* I want to avoid my abusive-ex recognizing my number/address
* I want to campaign to get rid of the corrupt police chief, if I use my real number/address I'll be hassled and pulled over by his cops
* I want to agitate against the local street gang/thugs/mob, and am afraid of them getting my real phone number/address
* I want to advocate a locally unpopular political, religious, or sexual orientation/lifestyle belief that might get me fired/lose me business if I yse my real phone number/address
* I want to advocate forming a union and am afriad I miht get fired if my boss knows

Basically, anyone who is a minority (racial, sexual, religious, political), anyone on the bottom of an unequal power relationship, anyone working against organized corruption, needs anonymity.

Yes, anonymity can be used for criminal purposes, but it can also be used for simply unpopular or dangerous activities. In your zeal to prevent crime, you'll end up making positive change much less possible. Much like Bush.

After seven years of Bush and Patriot Acts and Protect America Acts and no-fly lists and police tasering and legalized torture, I'm simply amazed you don't this, poster. I can only conclude that your busy-body desire to police your fellow citizens who "might" be contemplating a "crime" is so strong that it blinds you to any other consequences of your proposed presumption of guilt policy. Christ almighty, how do people come to be like you?
posted by orthogonality at 11:15 AM on January 31, 2008 [13 favorites]


Well, I did look at the FAQ and the archives and did a bunch of searches. I could no find a discussion on any part of the Blue, the Green, the Grey or anything else about when privacy-related questions make their way over into direct questions about illegal activities. If I missed those discussions, I apologize, because I did do some searches but maybe they weren't targeted enough. All the assumptions about my political views are inaccurate and seem really beside the point. Just because I'm asking about what kinds of questions are appropriate and which aren't doesn't mean that I have any particular views about what privacy rights should be. If the standard is that I have not contributed enough, or been around long enough or participated in other parts of the site, enough, fine, you can use that as a way to attack me.

There is clearly a precedent for certain questions being out of bounds because the question is related to something illegal that doesn't meet the standards that are considered "ok" illegal topics, like certain drug use. (And, if matters to anyone, I like that approach.) So, my question is, where's the line? If posts like this and this are deleted, is it because they are direct questions about how to do something that is illegal? To me, the two questions I quoted originally are more or less "how can I prevent anyone from figuring out it is me doing these things that I want to do?" In each of those cases, it's not a situation where any information about the person traceable via the method of contact is going to be generally accessible. It's a case where the person is trying to find a way to do something anonymously where is will not be possible to tie that activity to the person at all. I don't think that "how can I get an untraceable P.O. Box?" is that different from "how can I get an untraceable gun?", which is a question I think would be deleted. In both of these questions, I think that the claims that the posters needs these services for legal and moral reasons only come pretty quickly and predictably. Is such a statement, and a stated desire for privacy and anonymity, all that is needed to ask how to get away with committing crimes?
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 11:30 AM on January 31, 2008


I don't think "how can I get an untraceable P.O. Box?" is that different from "how can I get an untraceable gun?"

And that, in a nutshell, is why I am super glad you aren't a metafilter admin.
posted by Divine_Wino at 11:35 AM on January 31, 2008 [6 favorites]


iknowizbirfmark, the question of lawfulness in askme questions is (as shmegegge was suggesting) a recurring, well-trod topic around here. To some extent, questions that venture into the genuinely criminal often get axed, but it's a case-by-case test and in general we give the asker the benefit of the doubt if there's not a clear liability to the site and the question is asked in good faith.

Asking about the availability (or not, if that's the answer) of anonymous services in the vein of the phone and PO Box threads you reference here seems well within the realm of the benefit of the doubt. koeselitz satirical car analogy is on target—there's a difference between asking how to accomplish a crime and asking about something that could in theory be used for criminal purposes by someone with a malicious intent. We aren't generally going to assume the worst of the poster when all else is equal, and so there's really not a problem as far as the written guidelines of the site and the general historical askme moderation practices go.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:37 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


In a domestic abuse/stalking case, it would be extremely useful for the victim to know how to protect their anonymity. There may be a good reason that the asker does not mention his/her reason for wishing to protect themselves.
posted by desjardins at 11:38 AM on January 31, 2008


I don't think that "how can I get an untraceable P.O. Box?" is that different from "how can I get an untraceable gun?"

Holy smokes, really? 'Cause you're going to have a shit-fit when you find out that I often send my five year old to get the bullets out of my loaded gun-er... I mean... get the mail.
posted by unixrat at 11:39 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


I don't think "how can I get an untraceable P.O. Box?" is that different from "how can I get an untraceable gun?"

*Obtains one of the above.*
*Goes postal.*
posted by Partial Law at 11:41 AM on January 31, 2008 [5 favorites]


iknowizbirfmark: All the assumptions about my political views are inaccurate and seem really beside the point.

You're right. This whole 'crypto-fascist' thing up above is silly, even if it is half-joking. In fact, I'm sorry for snarking when you asked a legitimate question, and aren't an obsessive enough user to have been around for the previous discussions.

There is clearly a precedent for certain questions being out of bounds because the question is related to something illegal that doesn't meet the standards that are considered "ok" illegal topics, like certain drug use. (And, if matters to anyone, I like that approach.) So, my question is, where's the line? If posts like this and this are deleted, is it because they are direct questions about how to do something that is illegal? To me, the two questions I quoted originally are more or less "how can I prevent anyone from figuring out it is me doing these things that I want to do?" In each of those cases, it's not a situation where any information about the person traceable via the method of contact is going to be generally accessible. It's a case where the person is trying to find a way to do something anonymously where is will not be possible to tie that activity to the person at all. I don't think that "how can I get an untraceable P.O. Box?" is that different from "how can I get an untraceable gun?", which is a question I think would be deleted. In both of these questions, I think that the claims that the posters needs these services for legal and moral reasons only come pretty quickly and predictably. Is such a statement, and a stated desire for privacy and anonymity, all that is needed to ask how to get away with committing crimes?

We've actually had most of these discussions, if I recall correctly, in the context of posting free links to copyrighted material. mathowie has veered away from that generally, as he'd rather not get hit legally; but sometimes it's been allowed when it's a borderline case, for example when the material is streamed, because, as he has said, it's a guideline, not a rule, and because in certain cases any law that could be broken is either (a) trivial (in his eyes) or (b) not likely to spark any negative repercussions for the poster, the site, or mathowie. I think that's a good idea, and I think it makes sense.

For what it's worth, I think I'm more in favor of people taking law seriously than most. I think it's a serious problem in our society that people view laws as unfortunate practical obstacles that should be circumvented when possible. I also agree that "how can I get an untraceable gun?" or "how can I buy heroin?" are questions that should be deleted. But, first of all, asking how to get an untraceable gun is different from asking how to get an untraceable PO box because you can't kill someone with a PO box, at least not without a lot of work. Second of all, and perhaps more importantly, it's not obvious that getting an anonymous PO Box is illegal-- at least I haven't seen anything that indicates that it's not, and no one in the thread linked to anything that shows that it's not. The way the question was phrased clearly shows that the poster didn't believe that it was illegal. And it's certainly not illegal to get an anonymous phone number.
posted by koeselitz at 11:45 AM on January 31, 2008


And the poster has set up his MeFi account with ZERO personal information, i.e. totally anonymously, and only participates in the most personal part of the site, having asked two of his questions about personal finances. If you can't see the hypocrisy in your own actions, you probably can't function in a truly FREE society anyway. Speaking as one of the site's NOT anonymous members, may I suggest that if the pursuit of privacy offends you so much, you don't belong here. Your Edit Profile page has a link to delete your account. Use it.
posted by wendell at 11:46 AM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Quite possibly several MeFites are Anonymous.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:53 AM on January 31, 2008


I don't think that "how can I get an untraceable P.O. Box?" is that different from "how can I get an untraceable gun?", which is a question I think would be deleted.

You're being disingenuous when you say that your callout doesn't reveal anything about your views on legitimate privacy if you can even remotely connect having an untraceable PO Box and an untraceable gun. Your "concern" rings hollow.
posted by OmieWise at 11:56 AM on January 31, 2008


For no particular reason, here are instructions for folding an Origami X-Wing fighter.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:59 AM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: We do not forgive. We do not forget.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:01 PM on January 31, 2008


Your Edit Profile page has a link to delete your account. Use it.

Well that's not unnecessarily harsh or anything.
posted by cashman at 12:11 PM on January 31, 2008


Well, I don't know from anonymous. . .

I AM SPARTACUS!
posted by exlotuseater at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2008


For no particular reason, here are instructions for folding an Origami X-Wing fighter.

I flagged this comment because the information could only be used for illegal activities. Star Wars™ and all related intellectual property are protected by international copyright laws, and the creation of unlicensed Star Wars™ memorabilia is a serious crime that could result in harsh penalties. George Lucas and others depend on the revenue from official Star Wars™ merchandise, so promoting the creation of unauthorized copies of their work is literally the same thing as breaking into their houses and stealing their children.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:12 PM on January 31, 2008 [4 favorites]


I don't think that "how can I get an untraceable P.O. Box?" is that different from "how can I get an untraceable gun?", which is a question I think would be deleted.

I was once approached by a well-dressed elderly man, who gave me a briefcase containing a gun, evidence of someone ruining my life, and 100 rounds of completely untraceable ammunition.

True story!

I have actually looked into obtaining both untraceable phone numbers and untraceable PO Boxes, for the purposes of attempted to start up an ARG. That's hardly the same thing as looking for an untraceable gun.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 12:18 PM on January 31, 2008


I appreciate the comments about the fact that I have overlooked many legitimate reasons for it not even to be possible to trace methods of contact. You're right, and that's part of the reason that I was asking the question and not saying "OMG! Delete! I'm reporting you!" These questions got me thinking about these things, and I couldn't find a discussion of this issue, even though other legality issues, I agree, have been discussed pretty extensively. I didn't think that this had, and that's why I asked the question here.

I also appreciate and understand that it's important to have good faith around here and that it's got to be a case by case test on stuff like this.

I'm still creeped out by the P.O. Box question in particular. If the poster's not using ID, he or she's presumably putting it in a false name. Maybe that is for reasons of union organizing or campaigns against corruption or orthogonality's other well-articulated and well-founded reasons for having a means of receiving physical mail untraceable to an actual person. In my experience, though, uses of P.O. boxes on an anonymous basis (usually through fake ids or third parties) are usually for scamming people or committing other crimes that hurt individuals. You're all right that's not a reason to prevent someone from searching for information about how to do so for legitimate means, it just seemed close to the line for me. My mistrust of the government is as strong as yours is; my willingness to assume that everyone asking questions here has only the best motives is not as strong as yours. That kind of tradeoff is inherent to the nature of information exchange and the nature of this site, since it's ultimately about the exchange of interesting and accurate information.

The "gun" analogy is not perfect, but there are many, many legitimate and legal uses for guns, some of which are anonymous, just like there are many, many legitimate and legal uses for P.O. boxes, some of which are anonymous. I would expect, however, that there is a strong correlation between illegal uses of such items and anonymous uses of such items, and that's the point I was trying to make.

I believe it is illegal to get a P.O. box in a false name (but, of course, not a DBA, entity name, etc.); I'm too lazy to look that one up right now.

Finally, I think that it's pretty sad that I've been attacked for remaining anonymous here - the responses I've gotten to what is intended as an innocent question about the intersection of questions about anonymity, privacy and legality certainly make it clear to me that remaining anonymous is the right way to go here, for asking questions about P.O. boxes or asking a policy/etiquette question.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 12:20 PM on January 31, 2008


koeselitz writes "This whole 'crypto-fascist' thing up above is silly,"

Respectfully, I disagree. Busy-bodies like iknowizbirfmark who believe in "guilty until proven innocent", even when not wholly fascistic themselves, pave the way for fascists.

They value "security" and "control" and "alles in ordnung" over experimentation, invention, and liberty. The poster is at best a drag, a parasite, on a free society, and at the least provocation a traitor to a free society's ideals.

He's spiritual successor of the guy who saw Old Lady Williams collecting medicinal herbs in the forest and demanded she be burnt as a witch. His ideological ancestors lynched the guy who discovered the wheel, assuming any round object they didn't understand must have a criminal purpose. He's a cousin to the apocryphal Pavel Trofimovich Morozov, the Russian boy turned into a Soviet folk-hero for denouncing his own parents to Stalin's NKVD. He and his ilk are the reason the USA is no longer the land of the free or home of the brave.

In iknowizbirfmark defense, he isn't completely opposed to inventiveness. In fact, he asked Mefi how to "do some hacks or hide it from TMobile" that he's using his Blackberry as a modem. Now, why would anyone would hide a hacked Blackberry from TMobile, unless for illegal purposes?
posted by orthogonality at 12:25 PM on January 31, 2008 [8 favorites]


I'm still creeped out by the P.O. Box question in particular. If the poster's not using ID, he or she's presumably putting it in a false name. Maybe that is for reasons of union organizing or campaigns against corruption or orthogonality's other well-articulated and well-founded reasons for having a means of receiving physical mail untraceable to an actual person.

And, uh, maybe it's just none of your fucking business, Donnie Brasco.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:32 PM on January 31, 2008 [4 favorites]


In my experience, though, uses of P.O. boxes on an anonymous basis (usually through fake ids or third parties) are usually for scamming people or committing other crimes that hurt individuals.

In my experience, people want anonymous PO boxes so they can get porn and/or drugs through the mail. So, those are two sets of experiences that vary. We presume good faith/intent unless the OP asks otherwise or unless it sets off mathowie's "this could get me in deep shit" alarm and don't want to do otherwise unless there is a good reason. Unspecified generalized fears are not a good reason.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:37 PM on January 31, 2008


Your Edit Profile page has a link to delete your account. Use it.

Christ, wendell.

1. It closes the account; it doesn't delete it.
2. Seriously. Not cool. Try conversation instead.
posted by cortex (staff) at 12:38 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sounds to me like it's tax season again.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:42 PM on January 31, 2008


I'm still creeped out by the P.O. Box question in particular. If the poster's not using ID, he or she's presumably putting it in a false name.

Where would you get that presumption when the poster of that question wrote, "I would like to know if one can open a 'P.O. Box' at one of the MailBoxes Etc. places or places like it without showing ID? If so, where."

He didn't write "Can I use a false ID to open a PO Box," or "If so, how do I get around showing an ID?"

As unixrat said in the very first comment to this insanely stupid callout, The PO Box guy wasn't asking how to break the law, he was asking if there were rules against getting a PO Box without identification.

And since it seems to bear repeating: In a free country, asking what the rules are is not grounds for suspicion.
posted by jamaro at 12:43 PM on January 31, 2008


I asked a seemingly innocent question about dimples on deli foil wrap years ago; few knew that it was actually a coded instruction to my counterpart overseas that the aluminum tubing he needed for his project was available, but at a higher price due to heightened border controls en route.

Even the most innocuous post could harbor a secret message to international criminals and terrorists. As a matter of fact, the posts criminals use to send messages can be counted on to sound harmless. Otherwise they wouldn't be very good cover.

So I would suggest, if we're pouting about criminality on AskMe, that we should turn our eyes to the posts that don't even begin to suggest illegal acts, as they're the most likely to have been posted with criminal intent.
posted by breezeway at 12:45 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


At the risk of being accused of being a fascist by proxy, I'll stick up for iknowizbirfmark by saying that those personal attacks are not cool. Seriously, there is no reason to resort to name calling, and it's not reasonable to assume that iknowizbirfmark hates privacy just because of this post. Also, wanting to delete AskMe questions is not really related to wanting to burn people at the stake.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:53 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Fascist
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:55 PM on January 31, 2008


...by proxy
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:56 PM on January 31, 2008


The "gun" analogy is not perfect, but there are many, many legitimate and legal uses for guns, some of which are anonymous,

many, many, huh? You got one good, legal, anonymous use for an untraceable gun?
posted by bonaldi at 12:56 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Jamaro, are you suggesting that the P.O. box poster was going to open a P.O. box in his actual name, just without showing identification? Or just that the guy was asking generally about ID requirements without having bothered to try to open a P.O. box or look into doing so? And he just happened to ask about being required to show ID?

It seems pretty clear that poster knows that these places generally ask for ID (otherwise, why ask here?) and he's trying to get around it. Call me a puppy-kicking fascist and make grade school-level descriptions of what it means to live in a free country all you want, but, his intentions aside, don't try to rewrite history about what the guy's asking for.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 1:00 PM on January 31, 2008


I didn't realize this post was here, but I answered the PO Box question. Then some dipshit rolled in and suggested a fake ID be used, which IS a federal crime (said comment should be deleted).

The question about the anonymous question is either asking for information for illegal purposes or it is just an ignorant question.

The suggested reasons as to why someone would want a PO Box for anonymous questions have nothing to do with the question. A PO Box is anonymous in and of itself to the outside world. You have everything sent to a PO Box without disclosing the who holds the PO Box. Or you can make up names (Snuggle McBoobies PO Box 635 Dallas, TX 75202). The only person a PO Box is not anonymous to is the federal government. And there is no legitimate purpose for wanting a PO Box that is anonymous to the federal government absent a concern for legal investigation. The federal government does not log what mail a PO Box is getting. The only reason why the federal government would inquire as to the owner of a box is if there has been some criminal use of the mail service.

The phone question is different. But the anonymous question is not some guy wanting to make sure his mother doesn't find out he gets Playboy. His mother won't know unless he tells her. Nor is to keep his partner from knowing he's taking some medication. Again, a PO Box is by its nature anonymous.
posted by dios at 1:01 PM on January 31, 2008


Also, wanting to delete AskMe questions is not really related to wanting to burn people at the stake.

Well, it would be if the question in, uh, question was "Help me develop some ideas to stall or overturn the pending pro-stake-burning federal legislation."

posted by cortex (staff) at 1:02 PM on January 31, 2008


I'm not suggesting that: your ability to read what no one has written is quite extraordinary. I suppose that's part of being a lawyer but you're making a boatload of assumptions.

The.guy.wanted.to.know.the.rules.about.opening.a.private.mailbox. He could have called every private mailbox firm in his area or he could ask here. He asked here. Several months ago, I asked a question looking for storage sites with 24 hours access. I could have called every storage company in my area, but gave up after the first dozen or so and asked here. No difference.
posted by jamaro at 1:06 PM on January 31, 2008


iknowizbirfmark writes "In my experience, though, uses of P.O. boxes on an anonymous basis (usually through fake ids or third parties) are usually for scamming people or committing other crimes that hurt individuals."

You got to start hanging around with a better class of people man.
posted by Mitheral at 1:35 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


The.guy.wanted.to.know.the.rules.about.opening.a.private.mailbox.

I can read quite well, thank you.

The question was not: "What are the rules about opening a private mailbox." As if it is off-hand question like "What's the temperature in Oshkosh?" If the guy merely wants to know if one can do it, then the answer is: you cannot legally do it. Close thread; question answered. But the question is that the guy wants to do it, and was asking how to do it. And if he wants to do despite the knowledge that you have to provide ID, then it is perfectly reasonable to question his motivation for doing so.

Look, this is pretty simple:
1. If you want other sources to not know your ID, you can do that with a simple PO Box and not telling the third parties your name that is attached to the PO Box. You can remain anonymous from everybody but the government and do all the examples posited in this thread.

2. If that is not good enough, and you want to remain anonymous from the federal government as well, there is no legitimate (read: legal) reason for such complete anonymity, and you can't without breaking the law.

All the sneering and insipid Orwell allusions at the poster of this Metatalk thread doesn't change the fact that if the guy MUST be completely anonymous from the government, then it is a virtual certainty that such activity is illegal in nature because that is the only reason why one would care about anonymity beyond what the use of a PO Box already provides. I have no position on whether the thread should stay or go, but all the fascisim snarks in this thread contribute nothing to this discussion but noise.
posted by dios at 1:36 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


then it is a virtual certainty that such activity is illegal in nature because that is the only reason why one would care about anonymity

This is such bollocks given the federal government's history with investigations into political and union activities
posted by bonaldi at 1:44 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


then it is a virtual certainty that such activity is illegal in nature because that is the only reason why one would care about anonymity beyond what the use of a PO Box already provides.

dios, I've read enough posts from you to understand that you frequently equate legality and morality, but this is a ridiculous statement. That you cannot imagine reasons for wanting to remain anonymous to even the government that are not reducible to a desire to do something illegal does not make it so. If it isn't legal to have such an anonymous box, then having one is illegal, but that doesn't mean that the desire to have one is necessarily because one wants to do something else illegal.

I know you think you have the answer here because you have some of the facts, but this is precisely the problem. Some of the facts are not all of the facts, and your insistence that they are is just adding noise to this discussion.
posted by OmieWise at 1:44 PM on January 31, 2008 [4 favorites]


I'm not name-calling, I just think that this is one of many many stupid posts to MetaTalk, and, unlike most of the others, has no redeeming comedic value. I personally take the issue of Privacy very seriously and one of the more frustrating aspects of America these days is how hard it is to do legal, harmless activities privately without being accused of illegal activity. When I attack somebody's motives or thinking (or lack thereof) in MetaFilter or anywhere else on the Web, I do NOT do it anonymously, which is what iknowizbirfmark is doing to the poster of the PO Box question. I'm sorry I used the word "delete" instead of "close" for the function of the Big Red Button. Rest assured I will never push the button myself, but will continue to be a pain in the ass of people who hurt the things I love, including MetaFilter.
posted by wendell at 1:46 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


The federal government does not log what mail a PO Box is getting. The only reason why the federal government would inquire as to the owner of a box is if there has been some criminal use of the mail service.

So, you believe that to be true, and believe that it will continue to be the case, signing statements notwithstanding? Me, I kinda doubt anything having to do with enjoying a continued right to privacy these days. Asking about getting an anonymous P.O. Box, is, ironically, probably just the kind of thing that could get you labelled a person of interest.
posted by mumkin at 1:52 PM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


That you cannot imagine reasons for wanting to remain anonymous to even the government that are not reducible to a desire to do something illegal does not make it so. If it isn't legal to have such an anonymous box, then having one is illegal, but that doesn't mean that the desire to have one is necessarily because one wants to do something else illegal.

I can understand the desire to remain anonymous from the federal government. But once possessed with the knowledge that you cannot legally get a PO Box and remain anonymous from the USPS, anything beyond a desire to remain anonymous is in fact legally spurious.

Look, there are rules. Certain activities require disclosure of information to the federal government. This is one of them. I certainly understand people not wanting to disclose information to the government, but it's the price of doing the activity. I have no bone to pick with people who don't like having to disclose information.

What I do take issue with is the argument that anyone (such as the poster of the Metatalk thread) who has a problem with people trying to find out ways to break the law--assuming the AskMe poster wants to know how to do this once possessed with the knowledge it is illegal--has no reason to question whether this issue is kosher. Again, perhaps the poster of the AskMe was satisfied with "you can't" as answer. If he was, great. It's a non-issue. But it is not outside the realm of reason to think that someone may be wanting to do this for criminal reasons--especially if they search for ways to do it once possessed with the knowledge it is illegal.

Again, I don't think the Question should be deleted. I think it can be answered with "You can't." But I don't think it is absurd to question whether this issue is dancing close to legal line.
posted by dios at 1:59 PM on January 31, 2008


All the sneering and insipid Orwell allusions at the poster of this Metatalk thread doesn't change the fact that if the guy MUST be completely anonymous from the government, then it is a virtual certainty that such activity is illegal in nature because that is the only reason why one would care about anonymity beyond what the use of a PO Box already provides.

Sure, except for the part WHERE HE EXPLICITLY SAYS:

No, I am not doing anything wrong or illegal, but I would like to keep UncleSam and his goons out of my life.

Now, I think that's pretty silly and paranoid -- chances are, "Uncle Sam" doesn't give a shit about his life, or his support of Ron Paul, or his pr0n, or whatever it is he thinks may draw the attention of the evil empire -- but according to him, he has no ill intent. He doesn't even say that he MUST be anything; he says he "would like to" have his privacy. If that really strikes you as immediately suspect, I think you may have "24" poisoning.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 2:01 PM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


And I will reiterate: the answers that a fake ID could be used to do it SHOULD be deleted because they are advice to commit a crime.
posted by dios at 2:02 PM on January 31, 2008


I don't think calling out the anonymous phone number question is fair at all, but it seems most people have left that one alone, anyway.

I think that dios is probably right about the P.O box thread in terms of the motivations of the poster; the poster, in this particular case, pretty obliquely phrases the question (intentionally or not) so as to suggest nefarious intent. However, stripped of that context, I think the thread itself contains useful information that could inform those interested in the subject for legitimate reasons, and it really outweighs any sort of potential motivation we might assign to the asker.

Even dios' answer (a P.O. box is already anonymous enough for most any legitimate purpose) could be useful for the afforementioned domestic abuse victims and jessamyn's porno seekers, even if the asker himself won't get any use out of it (which he wouldn't only if he was doing something truly illegal). It's not like hyperdetailed answers explaining how to break the law in threads like that would be allowed to stay up, anyway (in general, the bean brigade need not drag out obscure counterexamples). The murder thread struck me more as mental masturbation than genuine, feasible, step-by-step advice.

However, I still think any question involving keeping my identity a secret from scarabic should be allowed.
posted by anifinder at 2:03 PM on January 31, 2008


What I do take issue with is the argument that anyone (such as the poster of the Metatalk thread) who has a problem with people trying to find out ways to break the law--assuming the AskMe poster wants to know how to do this once possessed with the knowledge it is illegal

Can you cite something that indicates that this assumption has any basis in reality? Because I just looked over that entire (brief) thread, and I sure can't.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 2:03 PM on January 31, 2008


what orthogonality said.
posted by jtron at 2:04 PM on January 31, 2008


"In my experience, people want anonymous PO boxes so they can get porn and/or drugs through the mail. "

PO boxes are a pain in the ass for most of my porno-sending, as FedEx won't deliver to them, which means that it's harder for us to track shipment.

So if you want porn, just use your regular name. If you can't do that, you probably shouldn't have porn.

(Oh, and can't businesses open up PO boxes under their names? I know that a magazine I used to work for had a PO box that was just billed to the business, and the guy who'd opened it had quit years prior. It was functionally anonymous.)
posted by klangklangston at 2:08 PM on January 31, 2008


I may have even mailed porn to some of youuuuuuuuu.
posted by klangklangston at 2:09 PM on January 31, 2008


Can you cite something that indicates that this assumption has any basis in reality? Because I just looked over that entire (brief) thread, and I sure can't.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:03 PM on January 31


It's an assumption for the sake of this discussion. If the poster is satisfied with the answer that the cannot legally do so, then this discussion is a non-issue. If the poster is not satisfied with the answer that he cannot legally do so, then this discussion is an issue.

I don't know whether that's the answer he was looking for or not, as he hasn't responded or marked an answer. I think the question could be read in a way to think that the answer is enough. I think the question could also be read in a way that the poster has some knowledge of the requirement (perhaps having already tried?) and is looking for ways around it. Don't know. So it was an assumption arguendo.
posted by dios at 2:12 PM on January 31, 2008


It was an assumption belluendo, since it's completely irrelevant to the discussion except the one you have in your head. The question isn't illegal unless you make this unwarranted assumption, and even if you do, the handling of obviously illegal questions is already a solved issue.
posted by bonaldi at 2:19 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


And there is no legitimate purpose for wanting a PO Box that is anonymous to the federal government absent a concern for legal investigation.

What about a concern for illegal investigation?
posted by juv3nal at 2:21 PM on January 31, 2008 [3 favorites]


Mitheral: Thankfully, I never hung around with those people (some of them are pretty violent criminals, who will definitely use violence to prevent capture in connection with their relatively low-risk, but massive, frauds). There's a pretty well-publicized large fraud involving internet scams and P.O. boxes that led to at least one murder - I can't find that one right now but perhaps someone else can. My "experience," if it's even fair to call it that, is from review of public and private records related to large corporate transactions and their participants' internal investigations and participation in law enforcement investigations related to large-scale fraud taking place via the internet, in which said transaction participants have been embroiled (usually by being a unknowing middleman of some sort in such a scam). See, for example, the kinds of illegal activities discussed here. I am not suggesting that the original poster was engaging in this kind of activity, but many, many people do, and being concerned about that kind of stuff going on doesn't make me any of the things I have been made out to be here.

Anyway, I think that this discussion was really productive, I've made the point I wanted to make, and thanks for all the insightful comments. Sure, the anonymous phone number guy might not be the best example but it was one that stuck in my head as well. I'm really sorry if anyone thinks that I am a fascist or that I have read too much into what the PO Box poster in particular is asking about, but I would respectfully submit that others here have engaged in flights of fancy much more extensive than the speculation I engaged in. All the personal attacks about me asking whether I could use my Blackberry as a modem or how to get my financial information through Mint or suggesting that they out me, well, I think those posters reveal their own views a lot more than I have here. It shouldn't matter here, but I happen to think, for example, that the PATRIOT ACT and the related attacks on civil liberties are just about the most disgusting examples of a failure of our country at being what our country is about in at least the last few decades, and I think that history will recognize this.

An honest discussion of this stuff (while probably beyond the scope of MetaTalk) has to go beyond just deciding that privacy is sacrosanct. I reject the implication that I'm a busybody or that I'm doing something wrong by asking about this. If you want to talk about fascism then my view would be that those who attack someone asking questions about standards and laws and their overlap in a community probably doth protest a little too much in that regard. I never even suggested that the question should be deleted, I merely asked what the standard was, and the mods and others have answered that question very well, and I've sincerely enjoyed the discussion. Thank you. If my use of MetaTalk for this question was somehow wrong or outside of guidelines, then I apologize, but I don't think that this is the case.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 2:26 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


MetaNanny!
posted by ericb at 2:32 PM on January 31, 2008


Met one? I et one!
posted by Atom Eyes at 2:44 PM on January 31, 2008


dios: how can anonymity be a legitimate end unto itself? I think the idea that there is no legitimate use for this information is silly. Paranoia is legal, and in some cases might even be justified, for example.
posted by absalom at 3:01 PM on January 31, 2008


Je suis une nanny.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:04 PM on January 31, 2008


So if you want porn, just use your regular name. If you can't do that, you probably shouldn't have porn.

There's this new invention they're calling 'the internet,' and it's absolutely chockers with porn. Well worth checking out sometime!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:35 PM on January 31, 2008


Is your name really iknowizbirfmark? You're not trying to hide anything are you?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:50 PM on January 31, 2008


Woot, woot, woot (insert Drudge's Flashing Siren)... attention all ... a current question at AskMe raises suspicions! ; )
What happens if the president-elect dies before taking office?

Does anyone else wonder if there is a Lee Harvey Oswald-type reasoning behind this question?
posted by ericb at 3:55 PM on January 31, 2008


Finally, I think that it's pretty sad that I've been attacked for remaining anonymous here

No, what's sad is that you seem to think anonymity is okay for you to have but not for other people to have.
posted by grouse at 4:00 PM on January 31, 2008 [5 favorites]


iknowizbirfmark writes "Mitheral: My 'experience,' if it's even fair to call it that, is from review of public and private records related to large corporate transactions and their participants" internal investigations and participation in law enforcement investigations related to large-scale fraud taking place via the internet, in which said transaction participants have been embroiled (usually by being a unknowing middleman of some sort in such a scam). "

Ok, I was too subtle. The guy minding his own business acting legally (minus any sort of goverment tracking requirements) doesn't make waves in law enforcement or other public and private databases. You wouldn't experience them because they are wanting anonymous privacy and won't make the "OMG! Identity thieves!" local evening news clips. "Guy minding his own business" doesn't make the news or grab the attention of DB compilers (with the possible exception of groups like the NSA).

In other words, as so often happens when the public is railing against others wishes for privacy, your sample set is selectively biased.
posted by Mitheral at 5:00 PM on January 31, 2008


I may have even mailed porn to some of youuuuuuuuu.

If I recall correctly, it went to my USPS PO Box, which I got without having to show any ID! (seriously, gotta love small towns)
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:11 PM on January 31, 2008 [2 favorites]


CRIIIIIIMINAL!
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:14 PM on January 31, 2008


I merely asked what the standard was

Live and let live works for me.
posted by mediareport at 7:55 PM on January 31, 2008


The standard is, accept an askme question at face value. Try not to inject any assumptions or personal prejudices into the question, and answer (or don't) accordingly. If the question truly is improper, the mods will take care of it. And apologies for the abusiveness you were treated to in this thread.
posted by Dave Faris at 8:03 PM on January 31, 2008


A southern man was stopped for speeding by a police officer.

The officer approaches the man and asks, "Do you have any ID?"

The man looks at the officer and says, "About what, officer?"
posted by C17H19NO3 at 9:35 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Look, there are rules.

Look, I'm flouting the rules.
Well, I would, if I wasn't so square...
posted by Chuckles at 10:00 PM on January 31, 2008


Jesus Christ, can someone please help me figure out how to jimmy open this fucking ATM before the cops show up, hypothetically?

Would you settle for "Um, I lost my key to 'my' safe. How can I get it open?"
posted by dersins at 5:10 PM on February 1, 2008


Would you settle for "Um, I lost my key to 'my' safe. How can I get it open?"

Actually, today I was at my USPS box, you know the one I never showed ID for, and I had forgotten to bring my keys, you know the ones that unlock the box. There's even a big sign in the post office that says "don't even think about asking us to hand you your mail, go home and get your fucking keys" [I paraphrase] but I was cold and shivery after walking there and with the wind in my eyes maybe I looked like I had been crying and the post office lady took pity on me and HANDED ME MY MAIL because I didn't have the key to the thing I was supposed to have the key to, and I already felt dumb enough. Like it's never happend to you?

cues Judas Priest

begins air guitar

BREAKIN THE LAW BREAKIN THE LAW

dun dun dun dun dun dun dun DUN dun....

it's a good thing you don't run this place, dersins.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:25 PM on February 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


it's a good thing you don't run this place, dersins.

Hey, I've had post office boxes in several small rural towns. I know all about getting your PO box mail without ID because everyone knows everyone's name. (And business.)

There are dozens, if not hundreds of reasons why it's a VERY GOOD THING for everybody concerned that I don't run this place, but that ain't one of them.
posted by dersins at 5:29 PM on February 1, 2008


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