Crime Policy/Legislation

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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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.

 

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