Sanctuary for the Abused
Sunday, January 11, 2015
Cyberstalking in the 21st Century - Part One
PART ONE OF A SERIES
They used to sit outside their targets' homes -- hiding in cars or bushes -- waiting to follow them.
They used to leave hastily-scrawled notes on their windshields before slashing their tires.
But now stalkers have moved into the 21st century, using modern technology to leave their terrorized victims living in fear.
Satellite technology, such as GPS, makes it possible to follow people in real-time from a remote location.
Threatening e-mails have supplemented the notes, while online background checks allow people access to information victims would otherwise want kept private, such as addresses and places of business.
Police forces across the country deal with thousands of criminal harassment cases every year, and suspects in these incidents are frequently turning to technology as a way of stalking their victims.
Det. Gordon Robertson of the Calgary Police Service, one of Canada's foremost stalking experts, said new technologies provide further tools for a stalker to exert his -- the overwhelming majority of stalkers are men -- controlling behaviour on the victim.
"The technological age has put a whole different spin on even regular stalking -- technology has added a dark twist," Robertson said.
He said the perceived anonymity of e-mail and Internet chat rooms lead to more bold behaviour -- offenders will say and do things on-line they wouldn't in real life. (This is called the "ONLINE DISINHIBITION EFFECT")
The technology is also there for a stalker to monitor a person's computer use, down to a single keystroke, or to get access to their e-mails and personal information.
"For people with the know-how, the computer offers that readily-accessible medium," he said. "You're seeing the computers involved in a lot of these cases."
Because computers and e-mails are increasingly used, Robertson said police are more often turning to search warrants to seize a suspect's hard drive.
Techno-stalking cases add to the workload of technological crimes units, which are already fighting a seemingly endless battle against another technological scourge: online kiddie porn.
"How do you police cyberspace?" Robertson said. "A lot of things are going on in that medium because there is virtually no one watching it."
Technology and stalking have become so linked, groups in the U.S. are designing programs that specifically target the problem.
Cindy Southworth, director of technology at the National Network to End Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C., said the increase in technology-related domestic violence cases in the U.S. led to the creation of Safety Net: the National Safe and Strategic Technology Project.
"We found there was a fair amount of technological misuse woven in with stalking and domestic abuse," she said, adding the majority of high-tech stalking cases fall within a domestic violence context, as is the case with the low-tech approach.
"We find stalking in general is not very well understood and when you add technology to it, it's even more of a challenge."
But she said old-fashioned measures to track and terrorize a stalking victim have not yet fallen out of style.
"They're still showing up at the house, they're still slashing the tires, but in addition they've added these other tools," she said.
"Because all of these technologies are widely available in the U.S. and Canada ... the more awareness we get out, the more cases we expect to see."
Part of Southworth's job, as is Robertson's, is educating law enforcement about the crime.
Southworth trains police to ask questions which could lead to evidence a stalker or abuser is using technology to facilitate a campaign of terror.
"Police need to start asking questions like 'Does your ex ever e-mail you? Does he seem to know things he shouldn't know about your daily activities,' " she said. (Most police have no clue how to deal with this)
On a positive note, she said, as more technology is being misused for the purposes of stalking and abuse, more groups are focusing on the misuse of that technology. "It's a step in the right direction," she said.
The goal now, Southworth said, is to educate women how to use technology to their advantage, to search out shelters, to log e-mails and to protect their privacy so they're no longer victims.
PROJECT CIVILITY AT RUTGERS UNIVERSITY