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The soap opera that is instant messaging

I talk on the social implications of some of my most common questions.

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This is Leo Notenboom with news, commentary and answers to some of the many questions I get at

Sex, lies, betrayal, cheating spouses and partners out for revenge. It all sounds like the elements of a daytime TV soap opera, doesn’t it.

It’s also a description of a large percentage of the Ask Leo! inbox.

Not a day goes buy that I don’t get questions from people attempting to retrieve old instant messaging conversations because they think their partner has been cheating on them. What I tell them is that unless the instant messaging conversations were explicitly saved, that no, there’s no practical way to recover it.

I also get questions from folks trying to trace the source of a harassing anonymous Instant Message or email. (On-line anonymous bullying is apparently rampant in schools.) This usually takes the form of wanting to trace an IP address to a person or physical address, or mapping someone’s screen name back to their real identity. Once again my answer is that no, there’s no practical way to do it.

I keep using that word practical, because naturally given enough resources, typically measured in dollars, there are tactics that might work. The instant messaging providers such as MSN or AOL may be persuaded to identify the source of IM conversations, Emails and screen names, and an ISP may be persuaded to trace an IP address back to it’s source. But I tell people that I expect that this would take the involvement of law enforcement and/or a court order. In other words, very difficult, and not very likely, and almost certainly very costly.

It’s frustrating if you’re the cheated-on spouse, or the parent of a harassed school kid, because you may have very legitimate concerns that are not easily addressed.

So what does it all mean? The internet is a dangerous place … we already know that. But like mailing anonymous letters through postal mail or making anonymous prank phone calls, it’s really just a reflection of the “real” world and of society. The difference is that it makes certain things so much easier.

And hiding behind someone else’s privacy policy to lie, cheat or harass is just one of them.

Have a comment? Visit ask leo dot info, and enter 8950 in the go to article number box. Let me know what you think, I’d love to hear from you.

This is a presentation of, a free on-line technical question and answer service. Hundreds of questions and answers are online and ready to help solve your computer problems. New questions and answers are added daily.


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