Is Cyberstalking a Special Type of Computer Crime?

AUTHOR

Frances S. Grodzinsky
Computer Science Department
Sacred Heart University
Fairfield, Connecticut USA

Herman T. Tavani
Philosophy Department
Rivier College
Nashua, New Hampshire USA

ABSTRACT

During the last five years, the instances of cyberstalking-related crimes have proliferated. The 1999 US Attorney General’s Report to the Vice President [3] notes that although no formal statistics for cyberstalking-related crimes are yet available, some local law enforcement agencies have begun to see a rise in the number of reported cases of cyberstalking. That report cites three examples: (1) the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, where approximately 20 percent of the roughly 600 cases handled by its Stalking and Threat Assessment Unit involved e-mail or other electronic communications; (2) the Sex Crimes Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which attributed about 20 percent of its cases to cyberstalking; and (3) the Computer Investigations and Technology Unit of the New York City Police Department which estimates that almost 40 percent of the caseload in the unit involves electronic threats and harassment. Virtually all of the reported cases of cyberstalking have occurred in the past three or four years. In addition, the report cites a study on sexual victimization of college women, conducted at the University of Cincinnati. In a national telephone survey of 4,446 randomly selected women attending two- and four-year institutions of higher education during the 1996-97 academic year, “581 women (13.1 percent) were stalked and reported a total of 696 stalking incidents. Of these, 166 (24.7 percent) involved e-mail. Thus, 25 percent of stalking incidents among college women could be classified as involving cyberstalking”[4].

Targets of cyberstalking get little help from either law enforcement agencies or civil courts because cyberstalking, as a form of criminal activity, is not yet taken seriously. Real life stalking laws are relatively new. In the US, for example, no laws against real life stalking, that is, stalking in physical space, were passed until 1990. “So in a country where targets of offline stalking are still told by the Police: ‘We are sorry, but we can’t do anything unless you get physically attacked,’ it is perhaps little wonder that stalking in virtual space gets even less respect”[2].

“Genuine computer crimes” have been defined as crimes that can be carried out only through the use of computer technology and only within the cyber realm. According to this definition, cyberstalking is not a genuine computer crime because criminal acts involving stalking need not involve computer technology, nor need they be restricted to cyberspace [1]. This, of course, does not imply that stalking activities in cyberspace are not serious crimes or that such criminal activities are any less serious than stalking activities that take place in physical space. Rather, it suggests that such crimes might be prosecuted under different legal statutes than those of cybercrime.

One might argue that any proposal to differentiate computer crimes into the categories of “genuine” vs. “non-genuine” computer crimes is too rigid a distinction, at least for practical purposes. This paper will investigate whether cyberstalking deserves special attention in ways other “non-genuine” computer crimes do not. Cyberstalking, an exploitative crime that typically targets women, is exacerbated both in terms of ease and scale by the Internet. This medium has also made possible certain forms of stalking-related behavior and activities that would not have been possible in the era of pre-computer technology.

We will illustrate some of the essential differences between offline and online stalking by focusing on such key issues as anonymity, distance, and “multiple harassment.” For example, a woman might not know that she is being stalked or not know the identity of who is stalking her — i.e., anonymous stalking is possible on the Internet. Does the possibility of anonymity in cyberspace encourage cyberstalking in those individuals who might think twice about stalking a person in physical space, given the confrontational aspect of the face-to-face act?

Also of importance to understanding significant differences between online- and offline-cyberstalking activities is an appreciation of the factor that distance vs. non-distance can play in the respective types of stalking. In cases involving “offline stalking,” the victim and aggressor are in the same geographic space. There, a woman may be able to get a court injunction against someone who physically stalks her. In the case of online stalking, however, there is no concept of distance. Also in cyberspace, there may not be any physical confrontation. Furthermore, offline stalking is generally a criminal act involving an individual against a victim. However, an online stalker can also engage others in the harassment of the targeted victim, because of the scope of electronic communication.

This study will assess some of the moral and legal issues associated with cyberstalking. We will examine the implications of issues such as privacy and free speech for cyberstalking. For example, we will consider how cyberstalking can violate the victim’s privacy and can protect that of the stalker; and how the stalker can be protected under free speech, especially if the postings are on Web sites that support violence against women. We will try to develop some answers to the following questions:

  • Do we have any obligation to alert the potential victims of cyberstalking?
  • What is the responsibility, if any, of those who read the cyberstalking postings to alert the person(s) being stalked?
  • Is there a sense of “civil” online responsibility?
  • Do, or should, ISP’s have any or should have any special responsibility in these matters?
  • Should there be any liability attached?
  • Which states in the US are taking steps to recognize the seriousness of cyberstalking and plan to introduce laws against it?
  • Should we continue to have to wait until the stalking acts migrate to physical space before law enforcement agencies can legally move against a stalker?
  • What happens if it is then too late?

We will use some cases to illustrate our points.

REFERENCES

  1. Tavani, Herman T. “Defining the Boundaries of Computer Crime: Piracy, Break-Ins and Sabotage in Cyberspace,” Computers and Society, Vol. 30, No. 4, September 2000, pp. 3-9.
  2. Hatcher, Colin Gabriel. CYBER STALKING. www.safetyed.org.
  3. 1999 Report on cyberstalking: a new challenge for law enforcement and industry. www.cybercrime.gov.
  4. Fisher, B. S., F. T. Cullen, J. Belknap, and M. G. Turner, “Being Pursued: Stalking Victimization in a National Study of College Women.” (From a forthcoming report on sexual violence against college women funded by the US Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice) referenced in [3].

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