13 February 2009

Cyberstalking and You

A brief guide to staying safe online

Email, instant messaging and social media websites are ubiquitous, convenient and useful forums for networking, doing business or just staying in touch. But there is a dark side, which may often be very upsetting for the victim--that of being stalked or harassed online. Anyone who uses the Internet can be subjected to Cyberstalking, which can occur in many ways. According to Wikipedia, Cyberstalking may be defined as

the use of information and communications technology, particularly the Internet, by an individual or group of individuals, to harass another individual, group of individuals, or organization. The behavior includes false accusations, monitoring, the transmission of threats, identity theft, damage to data or equipment, the solicitation of minors for sexual purposes, and gathering information for harassment purposes. The harassment must be such that a reasonable person, in possession of the same information, would regard it as sufficient to cause another reasonable person distress.[1]

It's very easy for an anonymous person to forge emails, making it look like messages are being sent by someone else. If the messages contain personal details combined with insults or obscene images, it can be very upsetting for the recipients, especially if they think the mail is genuine. Furthermore, it's possible to make anonymous phone calls over the Internet which are untraceable (without the resources of major governments or law enforcement agencies).

Usually, the person being Cyberstalked (if not a celebrity) knows their stalker, or has engaged in online discussions which triggered that behavior in some stranger. Examples might include the ex-partner from a relationship gone bad, political antagonists, fired ex-employees, or predatory individuals with a sexual motivation.

The results of Cyberstalking can often be very distressing for the victims and their family, and in extreme cases have led to serious mental health issues, including attempted suicide. Where the subject of the attacks is a minor, their physical safety may also be at risk, especially if grooming is being used by suspected pedophiles.

Young people don't always use social media sites in responsible ways, and parental guidance and regular monitoring of online activities is often recommended. Parents need to inform themselves of the risks of online activities, and educate their children in keeping themselves safe. Some simple guidelines might include:

  • Don't exchange emails and photographs of yourself with people you've never met
  • Don't assume that the person you meet online is who they say they are -- digital identities are malleable
  • Don't use a webcam like a bathroom mirror
  • Never open unknown attachments from strangers, and use up-to-date anti-virus software
  • If you with to meet someone you know from online, take a friend or parent
  • Educate your child about the risks of "stranger danger"
  • Always assume that if you send someone naked pictures of yourself, they are likely to be shared with strangers

Young people are likely to have a false sense of security when online. They may engage in attention-seeking behavior, where they seek to validate their sense of self-worth by craving the approval of others, even strangers. Blogging and twittering are popular social communications, but have their extreme cases. Some people seem to invite unwanted attention, such as the case in January 2009 of "Boxxy", a young woman with plenty to say. Her videos on Youtube generated tens of thousands of fans, and many others who couldn't stand her, with escalation of hostilities between the two camps leading to death threats, Cyberstalking, flame wars and distributed denial of services attacks on web sites (such as the popular message board 4chan.org, that originated the LOLcats meme.)

Organizations and cults are often high-profile targets for abuse, such as the Church of Scientology (along with some of its most prominent converts like Tom Cruise and John Travolta). Such organizations often employ professionals who track down and use legal threats to silence their critics, although the actions in 2008 of the international group that call themselves "Anonymous" showed that it's easy to hide your identity on the Internet.

Usually, however, Cyberstalking is more personal, with a single individual attempting to harass or threaten their intended victim. The target of such harassment has few options. Unless there is evidence of a direct physical threat to safety, it is rare for a complaint to the Police to be useful. However, establishing a paper trail through an official complaint might be useful later when seeking to take out a restraining order against a particular individual.

Targeted individuals may sometimes have their accounts or email hacked, especially if they use poor password selection policies. Immediate complaints to the abuse departments of the relevant websites can sometimes help, but will likely take weeks or months for action. Sometimes, the better choice is to create new accounts, and contact all friends personally to let them know that correspondence from the old accounts should be ignored. Related to this is the important step of making backup copies of all contact information and personal documents, which is good practice under any circumstances.

In general, it's best to ignore communications coming from a Cyberstalker, and refrain from giving them validation through attention. Don't attempt to reply -- simply delete such messages, which can be handled automatically by some email systems based on filters. For those who spend a lot of time online, it's a good idea to check how much personal information can be found about yourself through search engines. Use your social security number, name, email addresses or user names to discover whether you have "leaked" personal information online. If you can find such data, then it's likely that other people can too, so try to remove it if possible. As a rule, avoid entering private information (such as your birth date or passport details) into any web site. If it's not "official", then just make up fake data.

Some popular websites, like Facebook or Bebo, request personal information, that most people are happy to provide. While mechanisms exist on many sites to restrict the privacy of such information, mistakes can be made, and have led to leaks of private data (including birth details, names and addresses, and phone numbers or credit card details.)

In a world where life is increasingly being experienced online, some basic common sense should be applied to protect your privacy, and respect that of others.

09 February 2009

Recycled: Essay on Capital Punishment

Another old essay written back in my university days.

The Hand of a Killer -- An Essay on Capital Punishment

by Paul Gillingwater

for LLN210 Methods of Research (Webster University, Spring I) April 1995

"No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1623-1624)

Last week, Nicolas Ingram was executed in Georgia, U.S.A., after 12 years on death row. Despite considerable publicity and appeals for clemency from secular and religious leaders, the electric chair was again used to end the life of a convicted killer. Is such state-enforced killing justified? When we are faced with this question, we are challenged to define our moral position in relation to society. To what extent do the laws relating to capital punishment reflect our individual ethics? Laws are formulated in Western countries to maintain civil order and to protect society from criminal behaviour. To this end, penalties are devised which are intended to punish those who break the laws. Is execution an appropriate form of punishment in modern society? There are many arguments for and against execution. This paper will review some of the important ones, and show that capital punishment is unjustifiable, not only because it is both ineffective as a deterrent and can cost more than long-term detention, but also because it is ethically wrong by the standards of developed Western nations.

Ethics is about the relation of human beings to each other, especially in the field of moral questions. John Donne's poem (cited above) about the interconnectedness of all humanity holds true in more than just a philosophical sense, as suggested by findings from the field of ecology which show how the actions of one group of pople can have their effect on another group. Each person in society contributes to public opinion, which influences the official attitudes to moral questions in a democracy. Any argument for or against capital punishment eventually arrives at the question of the morality of taking one life in exchange for another. My view is that the deliberate decision to end the life of a human being is equally wrong, whether made by an individual contemplating murder or by a court passing sentence, because life is inherently the thing that each one of us values the most.

A clear distinction exists between lawful and unlawful killing. Since modern society universally condemns murder as morally wrong, we'll confine our discussion only to that form of official penalty known as "capital punishment", (named thus because early forms of execution involved beheading.) Individually, most of us have never participated in a killing, however in a democracy, all citizens are responsible for the laws enacted by our representatives in government, so it may be said that we are all individually implicated in any state execution. To understand this, it may be useful to consider the analogy of the hand, that symbolizes how each member of society participates in the processes leading to an official execution. Whether the finger of a killer pulls the trigger to unlawfully end another human life; or the hand of a doctor administers the lethal injection during the state-authorized execution; the result is the same, and it is the human hand that carries out the intent.

Our hands, with their opposable thumbs, serve to distinguish us from, and elevate us above, the animal kingdom. Human beings rarely use anything else to kill. It is the hand which must grip the weapon, sign the death warrant, pull the trigger or administer the fatal dose. By way of contrast, in the wild no mediation is required between predator and prey, unlike in our human world, where most of us isolate ourselves from the reality of death in the slaughter-house by butchers and supermarkets. Similarly, those who favour executions are rarely willing to pull the trigger themselves, preferring that the State develop the mechanisms to kill the condemned: out of sight, out of mind. How and why did these mechanisms develop?

A brief consideration of the history of capital punishment shows that public killing has long formed a part of law, as early as the Code of Hammurabi (1750 B.C.E.) In early societies, the punishment of wrong-doers was the prerogative of the individual or the tribe, and was usually undertaken as an act of vengeance. It often consisted of forms of torture or execution, which today would be deemed excessive and disproportionate by most educated people. As society became more complex, the right to punish was taken over by the state, which used each execution as a public spectacle "to encourage the others." [1. Voltaire] Since the 1950's, many developed Western nations have joined an international convention against capital punishment. Even in those countries which continue the practice, such as the U.S.A., executions are largely private affairs with public participation limited to the trial and sentencing. It's interesting to speculate as to why executions are no longer held in public --- could it be that the sight of a deliberate killing is somehow deleterious to society? Regardless of the possible negative effects that public executions may have on society, it is clear that certain countries still consider that executions per se have a deterrent effect, as evidenced by their continued popularity; however most Western criminologists believe that there is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty is any more effective as a deterrent than life imprisonment. [2. Microsoft]

Proponents of capital punishment would argue that the deterrent effect of capital punishment, whether public or not, is far stronger than the threat of life imprisonment, a view which is shared by the majority of the U.S. public opinion. This view does not accord with the evidence. [2. Microsoft] In one study, it was shown that two adjacent states (one with capital punishment and the other with life imprisonment) showed no significant differences in the murder rate. In fact, states that use the death penalty seem to have higher murder rates than those which do not, (although this does not necessarily imply a reverse causal relationship, as many other factors are involved, including the influences of demography and poverty.) Similarly, no change was seen when one state first abolished then reintroduced the death penalty, and no reduction in murders has been found in cities where executions have recently taken place. Thus it may be seen that capital punishment has no statistically significant effect on the rate of murder in a state, from which we can deduce that the deterrent effect of executions is negligible. Unfortunately, neither capital punishment nor imprisonment seem to be capable of slowing the growth of crime in modern society.

Since deterrence is no longer a convincing argument in favour of capital punishment, we may turn briefly to consideration of the economics of death. At first glance, it would seem that simply killing an offender may be cheaper than keeping him or her in gaol for life. This is true in some countries, such as China, which has a policy of "one execution, one bullet." In Western countries, however, the extensive legal proceedings of indictment, trials, appeals and their associated expenses have been shown to cost more than the projected costs of life-long incarceration. This apparatus is necessary to reduce the likelihood of mistakes in the administration of justice, since more innocent people would be executed if matters were speedier. Advocates of capital punishment who claim that long-term use of imprisonment costs taxpayers more than executions not only fail to provide evidence for their arguments, but also commit the fallacy of an appeal to greed (lower costs may potentially mean lower taxes), at the expense of compassion. Such logic can lead to the view that public health services should be denied to the elderly or to smokers, because they're more likely to die than others on whom limited funds could more effectively be spent. A further danger of this type of thinking is that once capital punishment is commonly used for murderers, it may more easily be extended to other crimes. For example, China has recently begun a series of executions of people who have defrauded the government of V.A.T. (Value Added Taxes.) Should tax evasion also be considered a capital crime?

A third area which has been used to attack capital punishment is that of bias in its application. Although advocates of capital punishment would argue that there is nothing inherent in the laws of capital punishment that causes racist, sexist or class bias in its application, research has shown [2. Microsoft] that all of these biases have been demonstrated. For a start, women are responsible for 20% of all homicides, yet proportionally far fewer women are executed than men --- a bias which works in the women's favour, but discriminates against men. Secondly, when considering sentencing of convicted murderers, racism is clearly a factor in determining the death penalty, with statistics showing that black men are far more likely to be executed for similar crimes than white men. Finally, defendants without the money or influence to buy experienced (and often expensive) legal counsel are more likely to be executed than well-educated and wealthy murderers. From the above, it may be seen that any suggestion that capital punishment is unbiased fails to meet the same standard of evidence that might be applied in judging a defendant. Now let us consider the most abstract, yet to many, the most compelling argument against capital punishment --- the ethical one.

When we execute a convicted person, what are our reasons? Are we killing him or her to exact vengeance on behalf of those wronged? Such retribution does nothing for them --- it certainly won't bring back the victim of a murder. Do we want to remove the offender from society, eliminating any chance that he or she will reoffend? In this case, it could be argued that life imprisonment should be sufficient, especially when it is accompanied by attempts at rehabilitation. Admittedly, there are problems with this argument, for example, if a prisoner escapes, he or she often returns to a life of crime. Furthermore, some prisoners who are paroled lapse back into offending. Such failures, however, point more to a failure of the current system of rehabilitation rather than any fundamental error in the rationale for opposing capital punishment. Surely, each person deserves a second chance? When such persons reoffend, society has the right to deny them liberty, but not to deny them their lives.

Will executing criminals reduce crime? Unfortunately, as already argued, not even the threat of death is enough to slow the growth of crime in our increasingly sick society. Whatever the reason, it is important to consider the effect that the execution has upon those who carry it out. Given that the act of killing can desensitize the finer human feelings of compassion and forgiveness (as may be seen in times of war and in slaughter-house workers), society has a moral obligation toward those who carry out the punishment on its behalf. Someone has to pull the trigger, throw the switch or inject the poison that ends a life. The chain of responsibility continues back to prosecutors, judge and jury, through to the legislators who voted for capital punishments as an option, and eventually to each of us. Each person who supports, condones or does not actively oppose capital punishment is in some small way contributing to its continuation, and to the debilitating effect this has upon society. That this effect is real was shown by a recent Time [3] magazine article, in which a judge in the Philippines formed a club for judges who have imposed the recently reintroduced death penalty. He explained that some form of support group was needed by those who had to give such terrible sentences. How much worse must the effect be on those who have to carry out the execution? Moral philosophy might provide an answer to the question of whether we have an ethical obligation to our fellow citizens. Once such an obligation is recognized, we might then accept responsibility in a personal sense for permitting society to kill on our behalf, whether in time of war or through execution of murderers.

Recognition of personal responsibility for the death of others was first suggested by John Donne, who talked about no man being an island, existing apart and separate from society. Donne's view, although radical in his day, is now increasingly seen to be true. (Depth ecology [4. Lovelock] takes this idea further, suggesting that all life on earth is somehow interconnected by ties of mutual dependence, as demonstrated by environmental problems knowing no political boundaries.) Social philosophers such as Bertrand Russell suggested that each individual must participate fully in the life of society, and that personal ethical decisions should be made for the good of society. In a contrasting view, Hegel argued that moral choice was not the result of a social contract as outlined by Hobbes, but a natural outgrowth of healthy family life. In either view, human beings must make choices that dictate their place in, and the operation of, the society in which they live. Such a choice is made when we determine that people who seriously transgress our laws are to be denied their freedom. These choices link each of us in an inextricable web of moral responsibility, in which the serious offender may be seen as one who is threatening the health of society. A common analogy is that if we consider society as a single body, then criminals are similar in effect to disease organisms, which can cause suffering to the whole body. (Of course it must be acknowledged that criminals are often a product of illnesses that afflict the whole of society, such as poverty, racism and poor education.) When something threatens our health, we generally act to destroy it, isolate it or control its effects. In the case of habitual criminals, we seek to reduce their negative impact on society by denying them freedom.

In the past, this denial of freedom was achieved in one of several ways: either by imprisonment, mutilation, banishment or death. Today, banishment is no longer practical, and mutilation by the state is considered cruel and unusual punishment by all but the most fundamentalist of Islamic states (although the senate of one U.S. state has just allowed for the surgical castration of sexual offenders), leaving us with two options --- imprisonment or death. Incarceration alone, however, is not sufficient for an ethical society. Penal science advocates rehabilitation --- the training and reeducation of offenders so that they may potentially contribute once again to, and enjoy the privileges of, a free society. Such a choice means that a price must be paid, in the form of higher taxes to pay for the construction and maintenance of prisons --- but greed should not be an acceptable argument for the use of capital punishment, as earlier discussed.

In summary, I have dealt with capital punishment in terms of its failure to deter, its economics and its inherent unfairness. A serious consideration of the ethical basis for eliminating execution as a means of combating crime has shown that there is a wider picture that must be grasped. That wider view may be analogous to the holistic view of medicine, which states that when an individual part of the body is sick, then the whole person is ill. Similarly, when an individual chooses to commit crimes such as murder, this is a sign that the whole of human society is somehow sick. If it is your finger that pulls the trigger, is it enough to simply cut it off? No, because the whole person is responsible. By analogy, when one person runs amok, we need to look at all of the factors influencing this behaviour, including education, racism and poverty.

Just as the hand may be seen as symbolically responsible for killing, it may equally be used to prevent death. If you feel as I do that termination of human life is wrong, then pick up a pen and write a letter --- to your congressman, political party, newspaper or judge. Make your feelings known, that every time a state chooses to end someone's life, such an act is against your will. Eventually, public opinion may be educated to the point when it recognizes that executions are both barbaric and unnecessary, in the same way that we now condemn slavery, torture and murder.


1. This is a quote from Voltaire, who wrote of England that "it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others." (Pour encourager les autres.) The reference is to Admiral John Byng, who was executed in 1757 for failing to relieve Minorca.
2. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, article on Capital Punishment.
3. Time Magazine, March 1995
4. Lovelock, J. The Gaia Hypothesis

05 February 2009

The totem animals of the United Nations Bureaucrat

Many years ago, I used to work for the United Nations. While bored at the office one day, I composed the following essay (1996)...

It was a quiet night in November. I was working late in the United Nations building, finishing off a document for a forthcoming conference, when I decided to take a break for a cup of machine coffee. Heading back to my cubicle, I nearly bumped into an elderly man shuffling around the corner. His UN Retiree’s pass fell off, and I automatically reached down to pick it up. He must have been more agile than he looked, because our heads bumped as he ducked too. Laughing, we agreed to head back to the coffee area, where we sat on some low chairs, and he started talking.

He told me this story, which he said was told to him by a friend of a friend. His eyes twinkled, as he asked me whether I knew about the three totem animals of the U.N. Pleading ignorance, I smiled, and he continued.

The first totem animal of the UN bureaucrat is the
three-toed sloth (Bradypus Tridactylus). A native of South America, this animal has long puzzled Biblical scholars, due to its amazing abilities. How could a pair of these intrepid animals have made the incredible journey from their home in the wilds of the Amazon basin, all the way to Mount Ararat in time for Noah to take them on board the ark? Clearly, they must have a prodigious capability for anticipation of important events. Calculating a daily distance travelled of around 3 km, the pair must have known about the forthcoming inundation over 30 years before the first drops fell. Imagine the sneers of the other sloths as these two visionaries departed on their epic adventure.

The hardships of the journey are almost beyond belief, with intervening stretches of desert, ocean, ice-floes and predators all too capable of running down an animal whose best defence consists in hanging upside down in a tree, nearly motionless. It is this motionlessness which fits the sloth for its place at the bottom of the UN totem pole, as staff members have sometimes been known to avoid the predatory glance of internal auditors through remaining absolutely still at their desks.

Our second totem animal also spends considerable time in trees. Evolving in the great southern land of Australia, the koala bear (Phascolarctos cinereus), is blessed with the ability to sit motionless on a branch for dozens of hours at a stretch, occasionally reaching for a new handful of gum leaves to chew. This unique talent is so well-developed that the koala has actually evolved a hard bony plate in its rear, which it uses to sit on the durable wood of the gum trees. Any UN bureaucrat worth his or her salt would immediately recognise the advantages of such an adaptation, given the long meetings, conferences, sessions and plenaries that fill our days, not to mention long hours in front of a desk.

For the third and final totem animal, we turn to that great reservoir of mysterious life, the ocean. The humble sea squirt, (Cnemidocarpa finmarkiensis), in its juvenile form frolics in the clear warm waters of the Mediterranean, crawling around the bottom of the sea, called by an unknown impulse to find a suitable rock on which to perch. When the rock is found, a subtle alchemy occurs within the metabolism of the sea-squirt, as it undergoes a sea-change, from animal to a kind of sea vegetable. To facilitate the process, the sea-squirt glues itself to the rock in much the same way as oysters do, its permanent post now assured. It immediately begins the next stage of its transformation. The rudimentary brain it used to find the rock is now superfluous, so the sea-squirt starts to absorb it, effectively digesting its own brain. Sadly, the parallel is in some cases all too clear, as the staff member with the permanent post is no longer obliged to engage in creative thought.

My new friend got up to leave, his eyes still twinkling. “Don’t worry too much about the Bureaucratic totem animals. They’re only as true as you want them to be. Perhaps we’ll meet again someday, and I can tell you of the feeding frenzies that follow the release of the hy… --I mean delegates—as they leave their great meetings. But that’s another story.”

04 February 2009

More random twitterings

After literally years of procrastination, I have taken the plunge into the world of micro-blogging. I may be found on Twitter here: http://www.twitter.com/ahbleza/

I've been very careful about joining various social media sites -- I decided long ago to avoid MySpace, Bebo, Facebook and the like. I am active on LinkedIn for professional purposes, and occasionally maintain my old personal web site -- http://www.gillingwater.org -- but that's down at present until I get a chance to update it.

Twitter is a lot of fun, and functions wonderfully as a disintermediation device between various minor (and a few major) celebrities and their stal^H^H^H^H fans. If you've not joined up, I recommend it!