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Internet File Transfer and Tracking

Tracing E-mail

E-mail transmissions have several features that make it possible to trace their passage from the sender to the recipient computers. For example, every e-mail contains a section of information that is dubbed the header. Information concerning the origin time, date, and location of the message is present, as is the Internet address (IP) of the sender's computer.

If an alias has been used to send the message, the IP number can be used to trace the true origin of the transmission. When the originating computer is that of a personally owned computer, this tracing can often lead directly to the sender. However, if the sending computer serves a large community—such as a university, and through which malicious transmissions are often routed—then identifying the sender can remain daunting.

Depending on the e-mail program in use, even a communal facility can have information concerning the account of the sender.

The information in the header also details the route that the message took from the sending computer to the recipient computer. This can be useful in unearthing the identity of the sender. For example, in the case of "Mafiaboy," examination of the transmissions led to a computer at the University of California at Santa Barbara that hade been commandeered for the prank. Examination of the log files allowed authorities to trace the transmission path back to the sender's personal computer.

Chat rooms are electronic forums where users can visit and exchange views and opinions about a variety of issues. By piecing together the electronic transcripts of the chat room conversations enforcement officers can track down the source of malicious activity.

Returning to the example of "Mafiaboy," enforcement officers were able to find transmissions at certain chat rooms where the upcoming malicious activity was described. The source of the transmissions was determined to by the youth's personal computer. Matching the times of the chat room transmissions to the malicious events provided strong evidence of the youth's involvement.

While Internet tracking serves a useful purpose in law enforcement, its commercial use is increasingly being examined from the standpoint of personal privacy. The 1984 Cable Act in the United States permits the collection of such information if the information is deemed to aid future commercial developments. User consent is required. However, the information that is capable of being collected can exceed that needed for commerce.



Bosworth, Seymour (ed.), and Michel E. Kabay. Computer Security Handbook. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.

National Research Council, Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. Cyber Security Today and Tomorrow: Pay Now or Pay Later. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2002.

Northcutt, Stephen, Lenny Zeltser, Scott Winters, et al. Inside Network Perimeter Security: The Definitive Guide to Firewalls, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) Routers, and Intrusion Detection Systems. Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing, 2002.

Brian Hoyle

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Incomplete dominance to IntuitionismInternet File Transfer and Tracking - Tracking tools, Tracing e-mail