In the United States, we highly value free speech. It is a wonderful right, but there are truly twisted people who hide behind freedom of speech and the right to privacy by being anonymous online. Just because we can say most anything anonymously, doesn't mean we should. People joke online about cyberstalking others, but the reality is that the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there may be hundreds of thousands of cyberstalking victims in the U.S. Many times, the stalker is an ex-significant other (boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife). A cyberstalker could just as easily be out to destroy the victim's reputation. Other cyberstalkers are trolls, looking for their comments to rile up other people, but then it escalates to obsession with someone. Cyberstalking is a crime and it's on the rise.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that "electronic aggression is the term that most accurately captures all types of violence that occur electronically." Additionally, the CDC reported that "Young people who are victims of electronic aggression, such as posting of embarrassing photos and chat room harassment, may be at higher risk for behavioral problems such using alcohol, receiving school suspension, or experiencing in-person victimization."
But it is not only kids that are harassed or bullied or stalked online. Of the three types of Internet harassment, cyberbullying, cyberharassment, and cyberstalking -- cyberstalking is the most dangerous. CNN reported that Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, defined cyberstalking as: "A course of conduct (more than one incident) that uses technology to track, intimidate, harass, threaten or scare victims." Kaiser advised calling National Center for Victims of Crime at 1-800-FYI-CALL.
An adult woman contacted me, stating she runs a fairly large website and that a group of people were cyberstalking her. This was well beyond curious Facebook creepers as this gang of bullies were terrifying her and posting her contact details on other sites. This woman wanted to know what she could do to stop it. The victim was not willing to "ghost" and start again under a new alias or new email address. Cyberstalking can cause real fear, as cyberstalkers are personal terrorists, but if the information being posted is public record, it is usually considered free speech.
Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA) has been around since 1997, helping people to fight against online harassment. Jayne A. Hitchcock, President of WHOA, recommended that anyone being harassed online should visit and fill out the "Need Help" page at WHOA. Hitchcock is a former cyberstalking victim.
I contacted Hitchcock by email when the woman who needed help, did not contact WHOA, but contacted me again for help. I'm not an attorney. Hitchcock wrote:
- The biggest thing is to respond only *once* to the harasser, politely asking them to stop. A simple "Please stop communicating with me" should do it. They don't have to explain and they are not being rude. Then do NOT respond after that, no matter what.
- Keep everything they get that is harassing (or links to sites with the harassment) and report it to the right people, whether it's an ISP, the web site host, a moderator, etc.
- In this woman's case, I would recommend she get a PO Box or something like Mailboxes, etc to use for her mailing address for domain registration, putting up on profiles, etc. Also get a free voicemail/fax number from j2.com (it's free because it's in your area code; if she wants one in her area code, it's a small monthly fee) and use that everywhere online as well.
- She should get an unlisted phone number and only give it to people she knows and trusts. If she doesn't have one, get an answering machine w/caller ID and do not pick up any numbers she does not recognize. If they really want to contact her, they will leave a message. If it's a harasser, then she now has proof to go to the local police with and file reports.
Depending upon cyberstalking-related United States federal and state laws, many of these posts would be considered a misdemeanor harassment. Many police may hesitate to put man hours into investigating a misdemeanor, unless the information being posted is meant to incite people to call or to come to the victim's house. Much of the law hinges on if a "reasonable person would experience fear for their safety." Yet, Infosec Island reported on a New York court ordering Google to produce the name of a cyberstalker. In Montana, this sick cyberstalker [PDF] was sentenced to 37 months in jail. The North County Gazette has ID'd a Warren County Sheriff's Department employee as a cyberstalker.
According to Cyber Guards, law enforcement needs proper training and to become more sensitive "to the fear and frustration experienced by cyberstalking victims....Computers and the Internet are becoming indispensable parts of America's culture, and cyberstalking is a growing threat. Responding to a victim's complaint by saying 'just turn off your computer' is not acceptable."
A person needs to scan their computer to make sure there are no viruses, keyloggers, spyware -- as well as making sure their mobile phone is not infected with spyware. Use a proxy to surf the Net and start using encryption. Is it fair that victims who are continually harassed may need to change their e-mail address, Internet service provider, phone number, online alias, or even ghost? No, it's not. There is help available to victims of cyberstalking, cyberbullying, and cyberharassment...but a person must be willing to follow the experts' advice. Sure, you may feel justified to get into a hacking war...but I guarantee you that the cops will let you know your actions are illegal.
If you need help, visit WHOA or call the National Center for Victims of Crime at 1-800-FYI-CALL. According to WHOA president Jayne Hitchcock, "based on the individual needs of each victim, we work directly with law enforcement, victim assistance organizations and lawyers making every effort we can to help and support those who come to us for guidance." No, it's not right that online stalkers can hide behind free speech and their right to privacy by posting anonymously...but as the EFF has pointed out again and again, it's a dangerous and very slippery slope to take away those rights.
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