This is the blog of British investigative journalist Jason Lewis.
It features articles from my time as Investigations Editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Whitehall and Security Editor of the Mail on Sunday.
I specialise in writing on intelligence and security matters, human and civil rights and the activities of the British State.
Tuesday, 28 September 2010
Google admits cashing in on suicide pact chatroom: Internet giant sold ads on web pages where two British strangers arranged to kill themselves
Internet giant Google last night admitted it had been cashing in on the online message board where two strangers planned their suicide and met others who encouraged them to go through with it.
The admission came after the father of one of the victims called for the ‘suicide boards’ to be banned.
The £25billion corporation sold advertising to run alongside the postings used by Joanne Lee and Stephen Lumb to arrange their suicide pact.
Suicide pact: Joanne Lee and Steve Lumb met after chatting on an online message board
They died together in a gas-filled car last weekend.They met on a Usenet online bulletin board, accessed through Google’s website, Google Groups, which it describes as a forum for ‘discussions about how to do yourself in’.
Google – whose unofficial corporate slogan is Don’t Be Evil – says it does not ‘control’ the Usenet message boards but provides easy access to the discussions, and oversees the removal of offending postings if anyone complains.
The California-based firm made profits of more than £4billion last year. Some of this comes from the ‘sponsored links’ it runs alongside the messages. Last week adverts
on the suicide discussion pages included links to sites offering ‘Sulphuric Acid. Call us free on 0800 090 ****’ and ‘Hydrogen Sulphide. Find medical & lab equipment. Feed your passion on eBay.co.uk! www.ebay.co.uk/medical.’ These links were apparently generated by Google because of the keywords used in a discussion about what poisons to use for a speedy death.
Last night, after being approached by The Mail on Sunday, Google said it was withdrawing all advertising from the suicide discussion board.
It also said that it would be giving organisations such as the Samaritans free adverts alongside Google search results when users typed in the keyword ‘suicide’.
The company added that it had started going through 13 years’ of suicide discussions for anything that it judged included advice or encouragement to those looking to kill themselves.
Anger at adverts: Google has admitted earning money from adverts posted on the 'suicide board' web pages
However, it said it would not be removing the suicide discussion boards from Google Groups or moderating future postings.
Google reacted after a Mail on Sunday investigation showed that Joanne Lee used a Google Group profile to start posting on the suicide discussion board last month, asking for help and advice on how to kill herself.
On September 13, Ms Lee, using the name Heaven’s Little Girl, wrote: ‘I’m desperately seeking a pact in the UK. I’m 34, female, and live in the Essex area.’ She said that her preferred method was gas and asked for a partner with a car who could pick her up.
‘My time-frame is As Soon As Possible,’ she said. ‘If you are very serious, please email me.’
Last Sunday afternoon, Mr Lumb, with the username Endthis, wrote: ‘I’m just saying goodbye . . . and to all you people suffering I hope you find what your [sic] looking for.’
Eight fellow forum members wished him luck and bade him farewell, but none tried to dissuade him.
Ms Lee and Mr Lumb were found dead last Monday on an industrial estate near her home in Braintree, Essex. Mr Lumb, 35, had apparently driven 200 miles to meet her and within hours of the meeting they died together.
Mr Lumb’s father, Melvyn Lumb, 63, last week called for the suicide discussion site to be banned. He said: ‘Why do they have such things? How can people talk other people into how to take their lives? These websites are terrible. They should be illegal. I had no idea Stephen was using this website.’
Last night Google defended its involvement in allowing access to the suicide board where the pair met. It said: ‘While the internet is a great source of information, some content can be distressing.
‘Google Groups is a platform which people can use to communicate on a vast number of topics, but they shouldn’t use it to promote dangerous or illegal activities. Where content is illegal, we remove it once notified and we have taken down suicide material.
‘We are also taking action so that no ads are shown on Google Groups for this type of content. We give free advertising to the Samaritans so that when people are searching for information about suicide they can get the proper help they need.’
I didn't egg Joanne on, says drug addict just out of mental hospital
He is a self-confessed drug addict with a string of convictions who has just been released from a California mental hospital.
But with the help of Google, Joanne Lee confided in Bill Hurst rather than her family hours before she killed herself.
Hurst, 53, from Citrus Heights, California, befriended Joanne and began correspondence with her on the Google Groups site and in private emails, discussing how and by what method she would end her life.
Suicide advice: Bill Hurst offered Joanne Lee tips on how to keep her suicidal plans hidden from friends and family
In one conversation, he warned her not to say too much about where and when she intended to carry out her suicide in case their discussions were seen by her family, friends or the authorities and they intervened.
Days before her death, Joanne talked about how she wished to die in a fume-filled car. Hurst replied: ‘Hi. You know that I would be honking my horn at your front doorstep right now if 1) I had a car and 2) I was in the UK. If you find someone, which I’m sure you will, I’ll miss you always and remember you fondly. Bill.’
In another post he wrote: ‘Just wanted to say Hi ... I’m sorry your [sic] going through the desperate phase. I’ve been there many times and it’s not a lot of fun.
‘We may be oceans apart but in spirit we are one. I know all too well the turmoil associated with wanting it to end.’
After her death, Hurst posted again through Google Groups.
He wrote: ‘Hi all. I was asked by Joanne to thank everyone for their help during her time here and that she had finally found peace. I will miss you dearly Joanne although I know it is what you wanted. Take care all, Bill.’
A twice-married father of six, Hurst is unemployed and has a string of convictions for drug offences. On the day he first struck up a conversation with Joanne on the Google Group site, he had just been released from a mental hospital in Sacramento. He had been forcibly detained there for psychiatric assessment after police were alerted to his earlier postings on the Google Group site discussing how he intended to kill himself.
Yesterday he denied he had encouraged Joanne to kill herself and that he could have done more to prevent her death. He said: ‘I never tried to egg her on in any way, shape or form. My advice to her was to not do it. I don’t agree with anybody doing it.
‘I first communicated with her a couple of weeks prior to her death. The last contact I had was the night before she died.’
But one of his ex-wives, Kristine Hurst, 49, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Bill’s a very sick man. I’m so sorry for this woman and for her family. My ex-husband needs help.’
The personal details of thousands of football fans who bought World Cup tickets from official FIFA outlets have been stolen and sold for up to £500,000.
Investigators are now trying to establish who purchased the information, which includes the passport details and dates of birth of up to 250,000 supporters, amid concerns it could have fallen into the hands of criminal gangs or even terrorist groups.
It is feared that the data could include sensitive information about dignitaries – including Prince William, players and their families – who travelled with official England supporters’ groups.
At risk: One England fan holds up a replica World Cup at the 2006 tournament in Germany, the subject of the data theft investigation
The massive data breach, which leaves fans open to identity theft and fraud, is now the subject of a criminal investigation.
It has been alleged that an employee of one ticketing agency may have been offering the information for sale.
The stolen database is understood to have been compiled by FIFA, football’s world governing body, in the run-up to the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
It contains details of more than 35,000 England fans, as well as tens of thousands more supporters from other countries.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the UK data watchdog, has launched an inquiry which also aims to determine whether information on fans who travelled to this summer’s World Cup in South Africa is at risk.
Investigators are trying to establish why the database was not deleted after the German World Cup, in line with international laws governing the exchange of information.
Last night, Mick Gorrill, head of enforcement at the ICO, said: ‘We have been made aware that the personal details of some 35,689 England fans have been unlawfully traded for profit.
‘The information relates to fans who bought tickets for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.
‘We have contacted FIFA regarding the allegations and will be liaising with the organisation further as we move forward with an investigation.
‘The unlawful trade in people’s personal information is a criminal offence under the Data Protection Act. We have launched a full investigation. As part of our investigation we will be working together with international data protection authorities.
‘We expect to be able to provide more details as our investigation develops, including advice for those who believe that their details may have been involved in this incident.’
Yesterday, FIFA refused to discuss the inquiry other than to say: ‘We are currently investigating this case and have no further comments at this stage.’
The Mail on Sunday understands that the ICO has already questioned UK-based firm Byrom which, through a foreign subsidiary, had the official contract to provide tickets for the South African World Cup and several other tournaments.
The firm was not involved in the ticketing arrangements in Germany but was questioned after it was claimed that an unnamed employee was behind the illegal data breach.
The staff member is said to have offered the information for sale in Norway. Last night a spokeswoman for the company said it was ‘fully co-operating with the ICO investigation’.
But she added: ‘We have studied the contents of this database and we can categorically say that we have never had access to this information in any form. It is not our database.
‘Ticketing arrangements at the German World Cup, unlike other tournaments, were not undertaken by our firm.’
The data breach first emerged in Scandinavia where the details of 50,000 Swedish and Norwegian fans were offered for sale.
Among the details were those of former Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson and former Minister of Integration Jens Orback.
Mr Orback said: ‘I don’t like this at all. As a former government minister, this is also a security issue.’
But it quickly emerged that the data breach was far more widespread and included the details of nearly 20,000 American citizens, 36,000 Swiss nationals, 42,000 Portuguese and 36,000 Dutch fans, as well as thousands more supporters from Poland, Italy, Germany, France, Spain and Croatia.