5 Clues Hidden in Computer Files That Can Get You Busted

#2. A Politician's Wife Sends Libelous Emails Created on Her Home Computer


The great thing about email, as every terrible person knows, is that you can sign up for an address and spew out hatred to anyone you want, with no repercussions. What, afraid they'll track your ip address? Why, it's as simple as going to some public place and posting from there. Total anonymity.

Unless you, say, attach a Word document to your post.

"Oh, crap, I think I just sent a picture of my boobs. Where's the 'delete sent mail' button?"

Back in 2000, Mike Ciresi was one of four Democratic candidates jockeying to run against incumbent Republican Rod Grams for the Minnesota Senate. As the primary election got closer, Minnesota Democratic party officials began receiving scathing emails about Ciresi and his law firm from a woman named Katie Stevens, describing him as representing "a rogues' gallery of polluters, price fixers, tortfeasors, predators, civil-rights violators and frauds" -- basically, calling him a world-class shithead. Ciresi denied all of these allegations, presumably after doing a quick search for "tortfeasors" on dictionary.com.

The emails were strange enough on their own, but as the Ciresi team tried to track down "Katie Stevens" to find out what her beef was, it became clear that no such person existed. The mysterious bomb-thrower had even sent the emails from a Kinko's, making it impossible to link the IP address to anyone. And the emails kept coming for four months.

"Huh. Apparently, Mike committed 'double Holocaust-rape' ..."

However, the emails contained Word document attachments, and if you've been paying attention to this article, you know exactly where this is going. One of Ciresi's aides checked the document properties of one of the attachments and found that the document had been at least partially written by a "Christine Gunhus", the wife of senator Grams. Authorities later found that "Katie Stevens" had also logged into her email account several times from Christine Gunhus's home, which not only proved that Christine was Katie but was also the first reported instance of a make-believe woman on the Internet not turning out in real life to be a bearded man draped in an Insane Clown Posse T-shirt and loose Pringles.

Sending anonymous emails is usually no big deal, but since Gunhus was not only Grams' wife but also his political director and chief of staff, the emails were considered a form of political advertising, which must carry a disclaimer identifying the source. Ciresi had her arrested and Gunhus wound up with a $300 fine and a suspended sentence, which we hope she spent taking computer classes and watching videos about why you shouldn't send libelous emails directly to a lawyer.

"I just got four guilty gang members off on a murder charge. What's up, let's do this."

But in each of these cases, at least finding the hidden data took some work by someone who knew a thing or two about computers. Sometimes "hidden" data is so easy to spot, you can do it completely by accident ...

#1. World Governments Don't Understand How to Use a Computer to Redact Documents


Redacting is basically when the government (or whoever) declassifies a document but blacks out all the sensitive information. One would think that modern technology would make the redacting of documents easier and more secure than ever, since the documents in question don't even exist in a tangible form. In reality, the exact opposite of this is true, and governments around the world catastrophically fail at redaction all the goddamned time, even when it comes to serious life-threatening secrets.

For example, the CIA released a redacted report called "Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran" in June of 2000. The original report contained the names of several CIA agents operating in foreign countries, but was released to the public with the names of those agents and their informants redacted, as there was an obvious risk that either they or their families could face retribution. However, the redaction was evidently headed up by Brigadier General Harcourt T. Failureburg, because rather than remove the agents' names, a separate image of a black bar was simply placed on top of each sensitive line but never combined into a single image.

"More to the left ... more ... more ... there we go."

So what's the problem? Well, your computer loads the text and the bars separately. The text first. On a fast computer this wouldn't matter, because the images would appear simultaneously, but if the document were opened on a slow computer, the sensitive lines would appear for all the world to see. Therefore, if you stopped the page before it finished loading, you could see the entire non-redacted report, stumbling ass-backwards into a master hack of top-level government secrets purely because you own an old, shitty computer.

The only saving grace was that the report was already 50 years old, so the risks to the individuals named were fairly minimal (and if the motion picture Red is to be believed, assassination attempts on elderly secret agents are both breezy and hilarious). But then there was the time in 2005 when U.S. troops in Iraq accidentally fired upon several Italian citizens, presumably because they had standing orders to shoot anything with facial hair. The Italian government demanded a response, so the U.S. released a redacted report on the altercation to appease them. Unfortunately, it was an electronic PDF with the redacted portions covered by a digital black highlighter, instead of just using an actual marker on the physical document and running the damn thing through a scanner.

Though, to be fair, sometimes the copy machine is in use, so you have to find other means.

Sure enough, an Italian blogger quickly found a way to remove the electronic redactions (harnessing all of his cunning to simply right-click the censored portions), and then posted the entire report online with names, operational details and unit positions now visible for the entire world to see, which is likely the most hateful thing done by an Italian since World War II.

The U.S. isn't the only government clumsily spilling things like a dude with a hangover trying to cook breakfast. In April 2011 the Ministry of Defence in Britain released several documents online under the Freedom of Information Act. The reports were all heavily redacted, but once again the redactions were done electronically and in a frighteningly unsecure manner -- the U.K. military had literally just Photoshopped black strips over the redacted areas.

"Yeah, that's should work. Just hit enter and call it a day."

All anyone had to do was highlight the text, then copy and paste it into a new document and the redactions disappeared completely. This goof wound up revealing several juicy tidbits such as expert opinions on how well the U.K. fleet could cope with a catastrophic accident, measures used by the U.S. Navy to protect its nuclear submarines, and a report that said the existing U.K. submarine reactors were "potentially vulnerable" to fatal accidents, helpfully letting enemies of the Crown know that to defeat the Royal Navy in an underwater battle, all they have to do is wait.

For more laughs from D. McCallum, check out Texts from Superheroes on Tumblr, Facebook or Twitter.

For more more ways you can screw yourself, check out 5 Wacky Internet Pranks That Can Get You Jail Time and 6 Romantic Movie Gestures That Can Get You Prison Time.

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