Cyberstalking is use of the Internet and email to “stalk” another individual. The crime of stalking has existed for decades; stalking refers to repeated harassment of someone where the stalker acts in a threatening behavior toward the victim. Threatening behaviors include following the victim, appearing at the victim’s place of work or near his or her home, then making eye contact so the victim knows someone is following, and leaving threatening messages on paper or the telephone. Stalking leaves its victims fearful of bodily harm or death.
The use of the Internet provides easy pathways for stalking. In 2000 the Working Group on Unlawful Conduct Involving the Use of the Internet, an agency appointed by President Bill Clinton (1946–; served 1993–2001) reported on a recent example of Internet stalking: a fifty-year-old security guard used the Internet to stalk a woman who had rejected his sexual advances. He retaliated to her rejection by posting her personal details to the Internet. These included her physical description, address and telephone number, and even included details about how one could bypass her home security system. As a result of the posted message, at least six men came to her house and knocked on her door. The security guard was arrested, pled guilty, and sentenced to prison for Internet stalking.
What is Cyberstalking?
Although there is no universally accepted definition of cyberstalking, the term is generally used to refer to the use of the Internet, e-mail, or other telecommunication technologies to harass or stalk another person. It is not the mere annoyance of unsolicited e-mail. It is methodical, deliberate, and persistent. The communications, whether from someone known or unknown, do not stop even after the recipient has asked the sender to cease all contacts, and are often filled with inappropriate, and sometimes disturbing, content. Essentially, cyberstalking is an extension of the physical form of stalking.
Most state and federal stalking laws require that the stalker make a direct threat of violence against the victim, while some require only that the alleged stalker’s course of conduct constitute an implied threat. Although some cyberstalking conduct involving annoying or menacing behavior might fall short of illegal stalking under current laws, such behavior may be a prelude to real-life stalking and violence and should be treated seriously.
Cyberstalking has the potential to move from a URL address to a real address—from virtual to actual. In a 1999 U.S. Department of Justice report, Cyber-stalking: A New Challenge for Law Enforcement and Industry, cyber-stalking is identified as a growing problem. According to the report, there are currently more than 80 million adults and 10 million children with access to the Internet in the United States. Assuming the proportion of cyber-stalking victims is even a fraction of the proportion of persons who have been the victims of off-line stalking within the preceding 12 months, the report estimates there may potentially be tens or even hundreds of thousands of cyberstalking victims in the United States.
The only thing a cyber-stalker need is an access to a computer and a modem. Due to the enormous amount of personal information available through the Internet, a cyber-stalker can easily locate private information about a potential victim with a few mouse clicks or keystrokes. Information is power and stalking of any kind is all about power and control. There is little security online. Turning on a computer can expose anyone to harassment. Everyone who receives e-mail or uses the Internet is susceptible to cyberstalking. If stalkers have access to a victim’s computer, they can track them by looking at the history of websites visited on the computer. Spyware software on computers (sometimes sent through e-mail) can send stalkers a copy of every keystroke made, including passwords, Web sites visited, and e-mails sent by the victim.
Internet users are most vulnerable in cyberspace areas in which they interact with others. These include chat or Internet relay chat lines, message boards or newsgroups, where Internet users post messages back and forth, and users’ e-mail boxes. E-mail harassment usually begins with an initial contact in live chat or newsgroup situations.
Techniques of Cyberstalking
Cyber-stalkers use a variety of techniques. They may initially use the Internet to identify and track their victims. They may then send unsolicited e-mail messages to the victim, including hate, obscene, or threatening mail. Live chat harassment abuses the victim directly or through electronic sabotage (for example, flooding the Internet chat channel to disrupt the victim’s conversation).
Cyber-stalkers may also set up a web page on the victim with personal or fictitious information or solicitations to readers. Another technique is to assume the victim’s person online, such as in chat rooms, or social media for the purpose of sullying the victim’s reputation, posting details about the victim, or soliciting unwanted contacts from others. More complex forms of harassment include mail bombs which are mass messages that virtually shut down the victim’s e- mail system by clogging it, sending the victim computer a virus, or sending electronic junk mail (spamming). There is a clear difference between the annoyance of unsolicited e-mail and online harassment. Unsolicited e-mail is to be expected from time to time. However, cyberstalking is a course of conduct that takes place over a period of time and involves repeated, deliberate attempts to cause distress to the victim.
People who do not have access to the Internet, or who choose not to go online, are not immune from cyber-based crime. Databases of personal information available on the Internet can enable a stalker to trace a victim’s username to their real name, address, telephone number, and other personal information, or can enable a stalker to impersonate the victim online. The offender can then harass the victim on the computer via e-mail or at home through the mail, telephone calls, or even by appearing at the victim’s home or workplace. Telecommunication technologies also make it much easier for a cyber-stalker to encourage third parties to harass and/or threaten a victim.
In order to address cyberstalking, it is critical to understand stalking in general. In many cases, cyberstalking is simply another phase in an overall stalking pattern, or it is regular stalking behavior using new technological tools. Therefore, strategies and interventions that have been developed to respond to off-line stalking can often be adapted to online stalking situations. There are federal, state, and local criminal justice agencies which have begun to focus on stalking, and some have recently developed special task forces to deal with cyberstalking.
As with all stalking, the greatest trauma is the faceless terror that it brings into a victim’s life— 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Internet becomes an electronic curtain behind which the stalker hides while terrorizing the victim at home and work, with friends and neighbors, and with countless people that the victim does not even know. Cyber-stalkers may be located on the other side of the world, across the country, across the street, or in the next cubicle at work. They could be a former friend or lover, a total stranger met in a chat room, or simply a teenager playing a practical joke. The inability to identify the source of the harassment or threats is one of the most ominous aspects of this crime for a cyberstalking victim.
The fact that cyberstalking does not involve physical contact may create the misperception that it is less threatening or dangerous than physical stalking. Cyberstalking is just as frightening and potentially dangerous as a stalker at the victim’s front door. The psychological torment is very real, even in the absence of a distinct physical threat. It totally disrupts a victim’s life and peace of mind. Cyberstalking presents a range of physical, emotional, and psychological trauma for the victim, who may begin to develop or experience:
- Sleep disturbances;
- Recurring nightmares;
- Eating pattern disturbances;
- High levels of stress;
- A feeling of being out of control;
- A pervasive sense of the loss of personal safety.