Presidential hopeful uncowed by emailed barbs

April 11, 1997

Dishing the dirt has long been a staple of student elections but email now offers a potentially powerful weapon for anonymous harassment of candidates.

When the campaign for president of the university's students' society at McGill University in Montreal began, candidate Tara Newell knew she would face the usual broad categorisations that have become the stock-in-trade of student elections. "I was labelled the left-wing candidate," she said. What she did not expect was to have her email box become a regular posting party of obscene material.

Later on, threatening messages appeared regularly, with the sender insisting that she back out of the election.

Quitting the campaign, she said, was never an option. In fact, the harassment acted as a lightning rod for Ms Newell.

"It empowered me to win the election," said the 22-year-old, who is in her final year as a political science and history undergraduate.

That resolve continued even after the harasser stepped up the pressure by cracking her password and viewing her saved correspondence.

Once her account was broken into, email addresses of the candidate's friends and colleagues were stolen and homophobic and pornographic messages were forwarded to them.

Ms Newell told The THES she felt violated by an act that she described as being similar to someone reading her diary.

Authorities believe thatpasswords using common-words, which Ms Newell used, can be figured out with programs that tap out every word in a spell-checker's dictionary.

McGill's computing centre tried to trace the culprit but was stymied by the harasser's decision to route messages through Finland. For reasons of confidentiality, the Scandinavian country routinely deletes email headers, the top of the message which denotes point of origin.

Ms Newell says her relations with the two other presidential candidates were cordial and that she was never confronted with undue malice in person.

"Telephones are more traceable now. But email is one of the most confidential forms of harassment," she said, referring to the re-routing decision of the harasser or harassers "who knew what they were doing".

But in the end she won by a healthy majority and then the messages stopped.

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