Cyber stalking: When the Inernet becomes a weapon
By Shaza Elsheshtawy
Talking is a physical threat. No doubt about it. There is a general consensus that if you are being physically stalked, you are being violated. So much so that New York state law establishes four degrees of stalking as a criminal offense. In fact, January is national stalking awareness month across the United States and has been since 2004.
But in an age of popular online social networking, for a modern teenager, physical stalking isn’t the only form creeping around on their mind. A new form of stalking has emerged with the online boom: cyber stalking which, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime Web site, can be defined as “threatening behavior or unwanted advances directed at another using the Internet and other forms of online and computer communications.”
A 2009 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that about one in four stalking victims reported some form of cyber stalking, including receiving many unwanted e-mails (83 percent) or instant messages (35 percent). Because the statistic is so small, comparatively, it is possible that cyber stalking is perceived to be less threatening and less physically dangerous. But a large group of people seem to be at risk of cyber stalking: Victims of cyber stalking usually range in age from 10 to 62 (32 being the average), while the average age of a cyber stalker is 24. In many ways, cyber stalking could prove to be more of a lurking reality than traditional physical forms of stalking, particularly considering how technology opens up a quick and easy outlet for stalkers to monitor and harass their victims. It could also be a more prevalent and legitimate fear than most realize.
It is for Maia Lazar. Now a graduate of the University of California-San Diego and an intern at the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., Lazar was cyber stalked by her former high school English teacher in 2004. “Cyber stalking is a legitimate form of stalking,” she said.
Lazar wrote an article in November about this experience in the The Heartland Institute’s School Reform News, a national publication working toward school reform. Mr. Stone (the name given to Lazar’s teacher in her article) began to intensely follow her personal online blog, to the point of making inappropriate references to it during his classes.
After Lazar reproached Mr. Stone when he made one of these comments, he started to leave many unwanted messages on her and her mother’s blogs and even cornered Lazar and her friend in an online chat room. He threatened to sue Lazar for “libel” and “slander” due to someone else’s comment on her blog calling him a pervert. High school officials at her school suspended Mr. Stone for a day, but, rife with anger, he quit and kept in contact with his favorite students by e-mail to talk about Lazar.
“To be honest, I was initially worried that I could have been in physical danger,” said Lazar. “Walking the dog in the neighborhood became unnecessarily stressful because I would panic if I saw an unmarked van. Or if some guy looked sketchy or creepy, the adrenaline would pump faster than usual. I had these irrational ideas that he would come and kidnap me in my own neighborhood.”
Jayne Hitchcock, president of the Working to Halt Online Abuse (WHOA), a volunteer organization founded in 1997 to fight online harassment, has also received unwanted attention from a cyber stalker. As stated on her personal Web site, from 1996-97 she was cyber stalked by two individuals who posed as literary agents from a phony literary agency called Woodside. The cyber stalkers used her name to forge mass e-mails with the intent to harass her. “The worst forgery contained Jayne Hitchcock’s actual phone number and address and claimed she was interested in sado-masochistic sexual fantasies,” according to Hitchcock’s Web site.
Naturally, this experience caused Hitchcock great distress and opened her eyes up to the legitimacy and reality of cyber stalking. She mentioned on her site, “Someone has to let the public know that cyber stalking and online harassment does exist.”
So what happens when stalking isn’t a physical threat? Are there penal codes and polices in place so that harassers like the ones who cyber stalked Maia Lazar and Jayne Hitchcock can’t get away with it? It would be comforting to know that this modern cyber variety isn’t hidden underneath traditional forms of stalking and, more importantly, that stalking codes and policies in the U.S. have kept up with the times.
Sergeant Thomas Dunn from Ithaca College’s Office of Public Safety does not believe laws have. “Cyber stalking isn’t specifically outlined in New York state penal law,” he said. “Since cyber stalking is a new phenomenon, the laws just haven’t kept up with that. So, typically the statute of stalking doesn’t necessarily apply to cyberspace, so we have to fall back to some other statutes like harassment or aggravated harassment using electronical means of a device with the intent to harass.”
It is stated on the National Conference of State Legislatures Web site that law enforcement agencies estimate that electronic communications are a factor in about 20 to 40 percent of all stalking cases. It also states that 46 states now have laws that explicitly include electronic forms of communication within stalking or harassment laws.
Federal law has also addressed cyber stalking to some degree. The Violence Against Women Act, passed in 2004, was amended in 2006 to make cyber stalking a part of the federal interstate stalking statute, which makes stalking legally a criminal offense. The act creates criminal penalties for sending anonymous e-mails and VoiP (voice over the internet) calls with the intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass any person. The penalties for being found guilty of this include up to two years in prison and heavy fines.
Then again, this amendment isn’t that recent. There are also four states that do not include specific references to cyber stalking in their stalking laws. Even a search through online databases such as the Statistical Abstract of the United States yielded no information or legislation from the past six months on cyber stalking.
According to Lazar, the matter of cyber stalking is more serious and carries more of a consequential weight than lawmakers realize. “Cyber stalking should have legal consequences,” she said. “It is often thought of as catty 15-year-old girls trying to outdo each other in a game of public hostility online via Facebook or MySpace. But I really think there are more overgrown teenagers out there, playing the very same game but in the bodies of middle-aged men, and perhaps women.” Cyberstalking should be portrayed as less of a game and more as a potentially harmful act that should be made illegal.
Not only has cyber stalking not been kept up with by law, but Dunn pointed out it is also more difficult to determine the real identity of a cyber stalker. “It’s hard sometimes to identify the perpetrator,” he said, “because of the ease and availability of creating e-mail addresses or screen names.”
Essentially, these cyber stalkers are, quite simply, hidden behind their computer screens, fake e-mail addresses and screen names, making it hard for law enforcement officials to keep up with them, too.
What is most curious is what motivates these people to cyber stalk in the first place. Lazar asserts that “he [her cyber stalker], as a small little known former ‘radio show personality online’ and former high school English teacher, craved acknowledgment and fame which he claimed he once had. And he was willing to do anything to get his 15 minutes, even if it was negative attention or eternal online infamy.”
Cyber stalking may seem a far-fetched, perhaps even distant or irrelevant, issue to most of us. Even Lazar said she got over her initial fear of physical danger: “Overall I did not have sufficient reason to be worried that my former teacher would physically stalk or harass me. I think the most worrisome was his threats of litigation.”
But here’s something to think about: Dunn said he’s “sure [cyber stalking] is becoming more prevalent in a social medium like Facebook or Ithaca College’s own web-based social networking.” Considering the amount of personal information Facebook users divulge their our accounts and the many friend requests some accept without even knowing who this new “friend” is personally, this is not surprising. Perhaps it would be worth taking a look at what security and privacy settings we have on such online social networking mediums.
So, fellow Facebook users—yes, you sitting there right now scrolling through your live news feed, uploading millions of photos of yourself, updating your status with an ungodly amount of personal detail and unabashedly accepting friend requests as you skim this article—do you think cyber stalking is a legitimate fear?
Shaza Elsheshtawy is a freshman journalism major who advises that you slap on a Facebook condom and set your profile to private. E-mail her for more tips at [email protected].