Threatening remarks, the F.B.I. — and your privacy

Guarding your privacy and security against prying eyes — especially Gannett’s — has always been my No. 1 concern, and it always will be. I do everything possible to make sure your comments, e-mail, and snail-mail stay confidential, and in my hands only.

But I draw a line at comments that are threatening to others — especially now, when there’s already enough anxiety at Gannett’s newspapers over a big layoff scheduled for next week.

I’m now going to tell you about a comment last week that totally crossed that line. It prompted an investigation over the weekend involving Corporate, the U.S. Justice Department, the F.B.I., and Internet giant Google, according to Gannett. The company said yesterday that the inquiry was resolved after it was determined the comment’s author did not pose a threat.

There’s probably a broader story here about blog publishing ethics, and new workplace management challenges posed by emerging Web technologies. But I’m just going to stick to the facts at hand for now. Although I was mostly a bystander, I’m privy to some details.

What happened
Last Wednesday at 11:02 a.m. ET, a reader posted a comment, anonymously, in response to my call for workers who had already been laid off; I wanted their advice, to share with current employees. Anonymous@11:02 a.m.‘s comment: “I brought a gun to work but decided not to use it.”

I did not know anything more about the author, including whether he or she was serious. It was one of more than 200 reader-posted comments that day. Indeed, I have no way of tracking or otherwise tracing any comment posted by anyone here. I do not have access to that information, nor do I want it.

But Google does have such access, because it owns the web-based Blogger software that millions of bloggers use worldwide — including me. And like many technology and telephone companies, Google will turn over to law enforcement authorities certain information only they can access — when presented with a subpoena. (Read Google’s privacy policy.)

To cut to the chase, after considering several options, I grew concerned enough to e-mail Gannett’s chief spokeswoman, Tara Connell on Saturday. I told her I needed to draw the company’s attention to a comment, which I included with my note. She replied quickly. In a follow-up e-mail, I told Connell I did not know anything more about the author.

How it was resolved
I provided no further information to Gannett or to anyone else, nor was I asked to. Later, I learned the following, from a series of e-mails sent to me yesterday and earlier by Connell and by Gannett’s general counsel, Kurt Wimmer:

By Sunday, Wimmer had spoken to the Justice Department’s Computer Crime Division. That evening, Google had provided to authorities the author’s geography at the time the comment was posted. Yesterday, Connell told me in an e-mail: “Google and the FBI found the person who posted the gun item and determined he is not a threat.”

What readers are saying
Reaction so far has been all across the waterfront. “Jim, YOU SUCK!!!” said Anonymous@1:18 p.m. in a new comment. On the other hand, Anonymous@1:27 p.m. declared: “Kudos, Jim!”

I wish this had never happened. The vast majority of my readers are terrific, responsible, adult bloggers. But in this case, one person caused a lot of unnecessary anguish over the weekend and beyond. Please don’t ever do this again.

Please post your replies in the comments section, below. To e-mail confidentially, write gannettblog[at]gmail[dot-com]; see Tipsters Anonymous Policy in the green sidebar, upper right.


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