TOKYO — Personal information acquired through online “trackers” who profit from identifying people’s addresses based on photos and entries uploaded onto social media have been used by stalkers as well as people seeking revenge after being scammed.
These tracking agents have descriptions such as “I provide agent services for specifying addresses,” and “The fee starts at 2,000 yen,” on their Twitter profiles. In August, this Mainichi Shimbun reporter contacted 23 accounts that appeared to be tracking agents, and received responses from two individuals. One of them, who claims to be a man in his 30s who works as a full-time carpenter, said he began the online tracking job after learning about it from an acquaintance in May. He said he charges several thousand yen per request.
The man explained that he specifies the target person by going back through their old posts until he finds a photo that seems to have been taken near their home. He does a detailed examination of the photos, to check for signs on railway station platforms that show station names, and for manhole covers, as many of them have a design unique to the local government or identification numbers that indicate their location. The man then compares the scenery in photos with that seen in the street views on map apps, and gradually pinpoints the location where the target lives.
According to the man, many of his clients say something like, “I got scammed on an online shopping site. Now that I know the other person’s Twitter account, I want to find out their address and expose them online.”
The man has gotten ahold of addresses of six men aged in their teens or 20s, as well as a high school girl. He says that he was able to dig up the information in two days to a week. “It doesn’t require any special skill, and only needs determination and patience. It’s fun and the client appreciates you, so it’s rewarding,” said the man.
When asked whether he’s ever worried the information will be used for a crime, the man replied, “I check with clients beforehand why they wish to identify the targets’ locations, and have turned down people who wanted the information to stalk the target.” However, there were hints of his desire for financial in the comment, “Nothing begins if you don’t trust what you’re told. After all, the customer is always right.”
There have been cases where information acquired by online trackers was used for a crime. A probe into Hirofumi Kurosaki, a 36-year-old former Tochigi Prefectural Police officer arrested four times as of August on suspicion of violating the Anti-Stalking Act and other allegations, found evidence that he had used information he obtained from online tracking agents to repeatedly harass a woman he met through an online dating site.
The woman cut contact with Kurosaki, now indicted over at least one offense, after they had met three times. Although he did not know her full name or address, he got her bank account information by claiming that he would pay her 50,000 yen (about $474) as consolation money when the woman figured out that he had been recording their conversations. Kurosaki transferred just 1 yen, and paid an online tracking agent to find the woman’s Twitter profile, based on the phonetic katakana notation of the account holder’s name for the money transfer.
Once the Twitter account was discovered, Kurosaki apparently viewed her posts and ascertained her birthday and the university that she attended. He also traced her address by referencing the branch name on a convenience store receipt that could be seen in one of her uploaded photos.
All of a sudden, the woman’s electricity and water were cut off, and her mobile phone and credit card were reported as lost, rendering them useless. There had also been anonymous phone calls to her university claiming that she “engages in prostitution and does drugs.” The ex-police officer has apparently admitted to his involvement, saying, “It became fun to identify her address and harass her.” In this case, the online tracking agent was not charged with a criminal offence.
Narumi Sasaki, a cybercrime expert and former Saitama Prefectural Police detective, commented, “As they (online tracking agents) are just collecting information disclosed online, their actions do not infringe on the law.” However, he raised the possibility that they could be accused of being an accessory to a crime in cases where agents are clearly informed of a client’s intent to stalk or murder someone.
Sasaki warned, “There can also be cases where the client hides their criminal motives. It’s a dangerous act that risks fostering crime, so it shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.”
The cybercrime expert also calls on social media users to be careful about what they upload, and said that posts providing information on train delays at specific stations, or pictures showing school uniforms can be used as clues to identify individuals. As preventive measures, he advised people to change their account settings so that it can only be viewed by certain people like friends, avoid taking pictures near their home or in school uniforms, and lower the resolution of images when uploading them.
(Japanese original by Takuya Suzuki, City News Department)