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.

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