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Cyberstalking Turns Web Technologies into Weapons

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Cyberstalking is a growing problem for women as rapid technological advances make online intrusion ever-more possible. There is a standard set of safety precautions, but as one safety advocate says, "This crime can be hard to stop."

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Cyberstalking is a growing problem for women as rapid technological advances make online intrusion ever-more possible. There is a standard set of safety precautions, but as one safety advocate says, "This crime can be hard to stop."



(WOMENSENEWS)--In Ohio, a high school student committed suicide after her ex-boyfriend sent nude photos of her to her classmates via text message from his cell phone.

In Florida, a female teen stabbed and killed a romantic rival after exchanging months of threats on the social networking sites MySpace and Facebook.

In Wyoming, a woman was raped by a stranger when her ex-boyfriend posted an ad on Craiglist.com calling for a man to go to her house, pretend to attack her and act out a "rape fantasy."

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Stories like these are becoming more common since widespread Internet use has given rise to a new crime: cyberstalking.

"Each year, 3.4 million adults are victims of stalking, and 1-in-4 has become the target of cyberstalking--threatening behavior or unwanted advances that use computer communications," says Karen Baker, director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).

Eighty percent of stalking targets and 60 percent of cyberstalking victims are women, reports the National Violence Against Women Survey.

Forty percent of women have faced dating violence via social media, found a February 2011 DontDateHimGirl.com poll of 700 respondents, who reported that former dates had sent them harassing text messages, posted disturbing status updates about them on Facebook and fired off angry messages or "tweets" about them on Twitter.

When police failed to stop a cyberstalker who posted threatening videos about her on YouTube, an Oklahoma woman decided to take technology into her own hands.

"I've taught myself how to block people from social networking sites, monitor Google searches of my home address and take screen shots of online interactions so I have photographic proof of harassment," she told Women's eNews.

She has found bullet holes in her truck and moved to a new town to evade harassment. Her name and location are withheld for her protection.

In California, a cyberstalker uploaded a photo of a female pole-vaulter from a track-and-field Web site and created an unofficial fan page that went viral, making the young athlete the object of anonymous--and unwanted--mass obsession.

'Difficult to Stop'

"This form of harassment may be especially difficult to stop," says Michelle Garcia, director of the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime. "But it can be especially terrifying because harassers do act out the threats they make online."

Thirty-four percent of female college students and 14 percent of male ones have broken into a romantic partner's e-mail, found a 2010 study at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

"The advent of cyberculture is forcing young people to ask questions never posed before," says Sloane Burke, the study's author. "Is texting someone 30 times a day affectionate, or abnormal? And how can you tell when the attention has gone too far and it's time to report it to the police?"

There is a standard set of precautions for safeguarding yourself against a potential cyberstalker: creating computer passwords that are difficult to crack; being selective about who you admit to a social networking site; and not sending Social Security, credit card or other personal information via the Internet.

Victims of online stalking are supposed to immediately alert police and providers of Internet services and sites where the threat arose.

"We're also pressuring law enforcement authorities and social networking companies to ramp up their own efforts," says Garcia.

There are laws in all 50 states that address the use of technology in stalking and Congress is considering a bill (called "Simplifying the Ambiguous Law, Keeping Everyone Reliably Safe Act" or the STALKERS Act) that would extend the definition of stalking to include cyberstalking.

But there's plenty of room online to improve Internet security, safety advocates say.

That's particularly true of Facebook, the social networking site that Mark Zuckerberg, its 27-year-old founder, developed from an early prototype that he used to humiliate a woman he dated while he was an undergraduate at Harvard University in Boston.

Facebook Criticized

Facebook, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based social networking site that boasts 600 million clients, is criticized for being too vulnerable to hacking; for lacking online and telephone customer service representatives; and for taking too long to wrest a compromised account away from hackers. Facebook did not respond to requests from Women's eNews to respond to these criticisms.

Twenty percent of online stalkers pester their victims using social networking, reports the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research at the University of Bedfordshire in England.

Sixteen percent of cyberstalkers, the English researchers found, use blogging as their means of attack.

"My abuser would create blogs about me--or post messages on existing ones that called me a 'slutty whore,'" says Alexis Moore, founder of the El Dorado Hills, Calif., group Survivors in Action, which supports victims of any crime, including domestic violence, sexual assault and cyberstalking.

An estimated 4 percent of cyberstalkers lurk on matchmaking sites such as eHarmony, Nerve and OkCupid.

"If a date goes bad or someone breaks up, the jilted person can use the very sites through which they met their victims to turn around and harass them," says Julie Spira, creator of the Los Angeles-based site Cyberdatingexpert.com.

Advocacy organizations are taking various safety steps.

Administrators at the National Center for Victims of Crime are developing a 15-minute training video about cyberstalking for use by police departments.

Counselors at the Calgary Women's Emergency Shelter in Alberta, Canada, train survivors of domestic violence on the safe way to use social networking sites and technologies.

Across Canada and the United States, representatives from Working to Halt Online Abuse, which is based in Southern Maine, are speaking about awareness and prevention at schools, conferences and businesses.

Fueled By Two Factors

Cyberstalking has been fueled by two factors: the rapid-fire development of technology that creates a potentially large, instantaneous audience, and the nonchalance with which people use this technology to divulge their most intimate details.

"People lose track of the normal boundaries they would have in face-to-face relationships," says Montana Miller, a professor of popular culture at Ohio's Bowling Green State University. "Those with whom you're communicating are not there, right in front of your face, to react. Therefore, the consequences of your actions--whether you're revealing something intimate or saying something mean--are dramatically lessened."

Technologies that foster the "disinhibition effect" are widespread and quickly advancing.

In Tennessee, an adult man used a Playstation listserv to badger a female tween he'd never met to send him photos.

Foursquare, a mobile-device application introduced in 2009 by New York City-based Foursquare Labs, now allows users to track others' locations.

Chrome OS, a "cloud computing" system unveiled in 2010 by Mountain View, Calif.-based Google, stores computer files in a centralized system--no longer on an individual computer's hard drive or a company's proprietary server. Such a system may make data storage easier, but it's also increased the possible exposure of anything you write or do online.

A new mobile facial recognition application that Google will market in 2011 will allow users to snap strangers' pictures and then access their complete Google Profile contact information--if Google succeeds in its pledge to first address the privacy-invasion issues that this tool raises.

"Technology gives stalkers more tools than ever before to monitor, surveil and threaten their victims," says Jayne Hitchcock, president of Working to Halt Online Abuse. "And the way people interact online only compounds this problem."

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Molly M. Ginty is an award-winning reporter who has written forWomen's eNews, Ms., On The Issues, PBS.org, PlannedParenthood.org and RHRealityCheck.org.