Cyberstalking lies at the intersection of physical stalking and cybercrime, where, instead of written communications or nonconsensual visual or physical proximity, technology is used to stalk victims. It involves the pursuit, harassment, or repeated contact of a person in an unsolicited fashion via communications technologies, or a “repeated and persistent attempt by one individual, the stalker, to harass another individual, the victim, using the Internet or other open networks” (Burmester, Henry, & Kermes, 2005, p. 1). The anonymity of the digital world may reduce some of the fears and inhibitions that deter ordinary stalkers, as the shield provided by communication technologies allow perpetrators to imagine they can avoid the consequences of ordinary stalking. Cyberstalking has been on the rise for the past two decades and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2014) have labeled electronic aggression of this kind as an “emerging public-health problem.”
While cyberstalking laws have been in place for a number of years, the phenomenon is relatively new and constantly evolving as emerging technologies allow stalkers new points of attack or means of avoiding detection. Federal and state law enforcement agencies are sometimes still uncertain of their role or the extent to which they can or should become involved in such matters. Most states have cybercrime units, which can tackle crimes related to computers and digital communications with advanced technology, but only in the most serious cases does cyberstalking fall within their purview. One of the principal ways of combating cyberstalking is through prevention. With increasing numbers of people having access to networks and at an early age, encouraging responsible use of communication technologies may work towards that goal. When faced with incidents of cyberstalking, victims are encouraged to document any attacks with screenshots; to report the abuse to internet service providers, parents, and law enforcement; and to block offending phone numbers, email addresses, and chat users.
A number of specific strategies have been proposed and employed to combat cyberstalking. Because victims are often reluctant to discuss cases of cyberstalking, fearing retribution or the loss of privacy, it has been put forward that anonymous reporting systems be created (Hinduja & Patchin, 2011, p. 51). In addition, as youths are often both victims and perpetrators of cyberstalking, many schools already use “filtering software and tracking programs” that discourages the sending of messages that might constitute online harassment of any kind (Feinberg & Robey, 2009, p. 27).
For law enforcement, one of the difficulties in investigating cyberstalking is the fact that it often occurs over an extended period of time and results in large amounts of collected digital evidence. Also, as Silde and Angelopoulou (2014) note, it is difficult “to apprehend the offender, as they may not be connected to the victim in the physical world” (p. ). The implication of this fact is that offline investigations are often inappropriate for cybercrime, and new methods must be devised. Silde and Angelopoulou (2014) suggest that the repetitive, persistent, and personal nature of the crime “lends itself to criminal profiling,” and they propose a methodology for reconstructing a profile the crime and perpetrator using digital technologies.
Burmester, Henry, and Kermes (2005) propose a model for a “cyberstalker monitor system,” including specific hardware and software recommendations. They first consider having an agent present to observe the cyberstalking when it occurs on the victim’s computer – or having a video camera or screen capture system serve the same purpose – but this is clearly an impractical solution for observing behavior that may occur over a long period of time and not necessarily be visible on a screen. Better suited is a blackbox system that captures “local host data and the relevant network data” (Burmester, Henry, & Kermes, 2005, p. 6), which can then be stored on a hard drive for later analysis. Such data can help identify the attacker or at least develop a pattern of behavior that can be used to create a profile. The limitations of this approach are the possible invasion of the victim’s privacy and the fact that the blackbox would not record communications sent over social networks or other third party websites that are increasingly popular platforms for this type of crime (Silde & Angelopoulou, 2014).
While there are statutes covering cyberstalking in U.S. federal law, there have been few cases or convictions to set precedents; most cases fall under state laws. To take one example, in North Carolina, cyberstalking is a class 2 misdemeanor (Internal Network of Cyberstalking Education and Prevention, 2015). The court has discretion as to sentencing and takes into any account previous convictions of the offender. An offender with no prior convictions may only receive “community punishment,” which could include probationary conditions and community service, among other punishments. Jail time, even for an offender with five previous convictions is a maximum of 60 days, and a minimum of 1. This is a fairly light treatment, especially when compared against punishments for physical stalking, which is a class A1 misdemeanor – with up to 150 days in prison – or a felony if the offender has been previously convicted or is under a restraining order.
Often, cyberstalking-type cases are tried under other laws. Tyler Clementi’s suicide in 2010, following online harassment fellow students at Rutgers University, highlights the difficult legal circumstances faced both by victims of cyberbullying and those seeking to prevent such attacks. Following Clementi’s death, his roommate was charged with “criminal invasion of privacy, carrying a potential jail sentence of up to five years” (Rosen, 2010, p. 5). Under New Jersey law, it is a crime to record a person engaged in sexual behavior without consent. Cyberstalking, on the other hand, falls under physical stalking laws (N.J. Stat. § 2C:12-10, 2C:12-10.1) and the penalty would most likely be 18 months in prison, a crime of the fourth degree. The roommate was ultimately convicted and received 30 days in jail, along with additional requirements (DeMarco & Friedman, 2012). While prosecution may be appropriate in this case, in others a balance must be maintained between protection of a victim’s privacy and of a perpetrator’s freedom of speech.
- Burmester, M., Henry, P. & Kermes, L. S. (2005). Tracking cyberstalkers: a cryptographic approach. ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society, 35(3). Retrieved from http://www.cs.fsu.edu/~burmeste/cyberstalking.pdf
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Electronic aggression. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/youthviolence/electronicaggression/
- DeMarco, M., & Friedman, A. (2012, May 21). Dharun Ravi sentenced to 30 days in jail. New Jersey Star-Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2012/05/dharun_ravi_sentenced_for_bias.html
- Feinberg, T., & Robey, N. (2009). Cyberbullying. Education Digest, 74(7), 26-31.
- Hinduja, S., & Patchin, J. (2011). High-tech cruelty. Educational Leadership, 68(5), 48-52.
- Internal Network of Cyberstalking Education and Prevention. (2015). North Carolina criminal penalties. Cyberstalking. Retrieved from http://cyberstalking.web.unc.edu/
- Rosen, J. (2010, November 11). Privacy strikes back: how to stop cyber-bullies. The New Republic. Retrieved from http://www.tnr.com/
- Silde, A., & Angelopoulou, O. (2014). A digital forensics profiling methodology for the cyberstalker. Paper presented at the 2014 International Conference on Intelligent Networking and Collaborative Systems (INCoS). Salerno, Italy: IEEE. doi:10.1109/INCoS.2014.118