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Researchers Develop Technique to Identify Anonymous E-Mail Authors

Benjamin FungIP addresses may help identify the source of anonymous and malicious e-mails, but they can only tell authorities where the message originated, without providing many details on the individual who authored them. Using some pretty innovative analytics, researchers at Concordia University have just come up with a new technique that could help investigators determine the precise identity of these rogue agents.

Led by Prof. Benjamin Fung, the team developed a method based on pattern identification techniques used in speech recognition and data mining. The first step involves analyzing a suspect's e-mails by identifying patterns in other messages that he or she has sent. Once these patterns are identified, investigators can filter any trends that appear in e-mails sent by other suspects.

The leftover patterns are then scrutinized more closely, with special attention paid to something known as a 'write-print' -- a collection of characteristics that effectively amount to a kind of digital fingerprint. "Let's say the anonymous email contains typos or grammatical mistakes, or is written entirely in lowercase letters," Fung explained. "We use those special characteristics to create a write-print. Using this method, we can even determine with a high degree of accuracy who wrote a given email, and infer the gender, nationality and education level of the author."

Incredibly enough, the researchers found they could identify suspects with about 80 to 90-percent accuracy. According to Fung, this kind of accuracy implies that the method could have very real-world applications. "Our technique was designed to provide credible evidence that can be presented in a court of law," Fung said. "For evidence to be admissible, investigators need to explain how they have reached their conclusions. Our method allows them to do this."

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