In the movie “Silver Linings Playbook,” Bradley Cooper plays a man with a restraining order obsessing over his estranged wife. He schemes to get a letter delivered to her, runs past her house, skulks around her workplace and acts like a full-fledged maniac. But he doesn’t know how to use Facebook, apparently, because it’s much easier to stalk online.
Stalking predates technology, but the Internet and mobile devices have opened up venues for harassment faster than laws can catch-up. People can stalk or harass you in ever-increasing ways, and location-tracking in social apps is making it easier to track you than ever before. Part of the danger is how the police treat aggressors — they’re dismissed as mere nuisances due to the nature of digital attacks. But serious cyberharassment can lead to violence and even death.
For instance, Tiffany Barwick, a Florida teen, was murdered by her boyfriend after he sent a barrage of malicious e-mails. Barwick contacted the police after he’d hacked into her account, but they didn’t intervene, failing to take her threat seriously. Police don’t always treat clear-cut cases of harassment as dangerous threats, and that’s a growing problem. And women are often harassed online by people who gamify the anti-social and devastating behavior.
In 1999, legislators passed stricter cyberstalking laws, after then-Vice President Al Gore asked them to look into the issue. Most states distinguish cyberstalking from cyberharassment, but some are better than others. So what’s the difference? Cyberharassment is usually a “threatening or harassing” e-mail, instant message or to blog post meant to torment, according to the National Conference of State Legislature, or NCSL. That means, if it’s not a credible threat to a person’s welfare, it’s not cyberstalking. Meanwhile, Jayne Hitchcock, president of the Working to Halt Abuse Online, or WHOA, is fighting to pass a nationwide law to address cyberstalking, since none exist at the federal level. State laws are in place, but state and local police don’t often enforce those laws.
“Victims who go to the police are being told they’re too busy, there’s no law in place — when there is — or that there’s no case,” Hitchcock told me. “It’s sad when victims are treated like cyberstalking is not a big deal.”
While the police needs to treat cyberstalking as the serious crime, in many cases, laws aren’t even in place. The NCSL lists various laws on cyberstalking and cyberharassment — some states have laws against both, while others have neither. For example, Hitchcock singled out Texas as worst state to be stalked in. But often the police are the determining factor. In Florida, police ignored Barwick’s requests for help. In New York, for example, the FBI indicted a man for cyberstalking 18 young victims.
This month, the White House shed light on the rising problem by proclaiming January as “Stalking Awareness Month.” The Obama administration hopes not only to bring the issue to the forefront, but also look for ways to use technology to combat harassment.
While legal gaps weaken your protection, you can take steps to both prevent and stop these incidents. The website Take Back the Tech, for example, offers valuable advice on how to lessen the likelihood of attacks — frequently change passwords, anonymize your IP address and keep up-to-date about social media privacy policies.
It also offers tips on what to do if you’re harassed or stalked. For instance, keep records of confrontations, which give the police evidence to pursue the case. In addition, you can contact attacker’s Internet service provider, who often have policies against abusive conduct. Of course, some stalkers are aggressive, and getting the police to help more difficult than necessary. But persistence yields results, and law enforcement is starting to recognize the severity of the problem.
Still, if you confront and fight back, it’s an arduous task, as journalist Carla Franklin knows all too well. She detailed her cyberstalking struggles, explaining how she lost her job and even went as far as suing Google.
“During all of this time, I had lawyers telling me they didn’t know anything about Internet harassment and judges telling me I was wasting their time,” she wrote in a piece for The Daily Beast, claiming the legal system didn’t give her case the needed attention. “One judge told me point blank that I didn’t belong in her court, saying she had more important cases of abuse to deal with. Because I had no physical signs of trauma, she didn’t think my battle mattered.”
The Internet is here to stay. With all the promise of a better life, the Web, unfortunately, also brings some drawbacks, such an easier way to stalk and harass. But beyond cyberstalking and cyberharassment, we need laws and police action to evolve with the times to stem the threats and keep people safe online and off. ♦