What is cyberstalking?
Cyberstalking is a technologically based “attack” on one person who has been targeted specifically for that attack for reasons of anger, revenge or control.
Cyberstalking can take many forms, including:
- Harassment, embarrassment and humiliation of the victim
- Attempts to destroy the victim’s economic livelihood
- Harassing family, friends co-workers and employers to isolate the victim
- Scare tactics to instill fear for the victim’s safety and the safety of loved ones
A cyberstalker’s intent is to terrorize and irreparably harm their victim using the anonymity and untraceable distance of technology. In many situations, the victims never discover the identity of the cyberstalkers who attack them, despite their lives being completely destroyed by the perpetrator. Online anonymity is critical to cyberstalking, as it shields the perpetrator from consequences in all their actions.
Is cyberstalking the same thing as identity theft?
No, cyberstalking is not identity theft. An identity thief, whether stealing from a stranger or a family member, has only financial gain in mind, and is unconcerned by the consequences of their behavior on the victim’s life. In contrast, the actions of a cyberstalker are specifically engineered to have disastrous consequences to the victim. While not engaging in identity theft per se, cyberstalkers often do take over their victims’ identity online, communicating as the victim in order to destroy the victim’s reputation, employment and social support network.
What’s the impact of cyberstalking?
The impact is devastating. Victims suffer profound psychological symptoms similar to PTSD. Careers, reputations, community standing, marriages, relationships and economic livelihood are often destroyed. Amplifying this victimization is the fact that victims, when they do report what is happening, are rarely taken seriously and frequently not even believed. Few people have ever heard of cyberstalking, and certainly never imagined the horrendous possibilities that accompany it. When details of an actual cyberstalking case are relayed, people assume that the violations are so egregious that law enforcement will surely step in. But they do not.
Isn’t cyberstalking illegal?
Yes, and while there are some local and federal laws regarding physical stalking and harassment that have some provisions for “electronic devices”, they are toothless and hardly ever prosecuted. Quite simply put, cyberstalking is not on our national radar. Law enforcement resources are allocated towards other cyber crimes involving national security, child pornography and large-scale financial fraud. Further, law enforcement is strikingly ill equipped to deal with cyberstalking both in terms of their technological capabilities, as well as their understanding of the crime. The phrase victims most often hear from law enforcement is, “Just ignore it, it will stop”.
Because law enforcement is largely unresponsive to reports of cyberstalking, victims are most often advised to pursue their anonymous stalker in a civil court for “libel and slander”; otherwise known as Internet defamation. However, these defamation cases, while ballooning in numbers, are largely ineffective, unsuccessful and outrageously expensive. In the miniscule percentage of cyberstalking cases where stalkers are sued successfully, the consequences to the perpetrator are minimal and the rulings are narrow, so the stalking typically continues, with the stalker simply using different accusations and more advanced tactics and tools to avoid detection.
How big a problem is it?
Cyberstalking appears to be virtually epidemic. Because it is such a new phenomenon the media and law enforcement have yet to broadly define and quantify it. Without consistent definition, and very little response from law enforcement, it is impossible to quantify statistically, although everyone agrees the phenomenon is growing exponentially. What numbers there are reveal millions of existing and projected future cases.
Could it happen to me?
Yes. And chances are it will affect you or a loved one in the next few months or years. The ease and anonymity with which someone can cyberstalk their target has made potential victims of us all. In addition to romantic relationships or marriages gone wrong, many have been cyberstalked for the most minor reasons by people they’ve angered in the past. Victims have been targeted because they broke off dating someone after one or two dates, fired an employee, were part of a business deal gone bad or didn’t accept a friend request on Facebook.
What can be done?
We need to educate our citizenry, law enforcement and legislators about this hidden epidemic and show its devastating impact. When cyberstalking is more widely understood, legislators can provide prosecutors with laws that have teeth; and judges will be more inclined give harsher sentences that deter. Finally, there are a multitude of laws that inadvertently facilitate ISP providers remaining unaccountable for damage caused by anonymous perpetrators on their technology platforms (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act). These can be modified in common sense ways in order to dramatically reduce the incidence of cyberstalking.