What Is Cyberstalking?
From the U.S. Department of Justice
Although there is no universally accepted definition of cyberstalking, the term is used in this report to refer to the use of the Internet, e-mail, or other electronic communications devices to stalk another person. Stalking generally involves harassing or threatening behavior that an individual engages in repeatedly, such as following a person, appearing at a person's home or place of business, making harassing phone calls, leaving written messages or objects, or vandalizing a person's property.
Most stalking laws require that the perpetrator make a credible threat of violence against the victim; others include threats against the victim's immediate family; and still others require only that the alleged stalker's course of conduct constitute an implied threat. While some conduct involving annoying or menacing behavior might fall short of illegal stalking, such behavior may be a prelude to stalking and violence and should be treated seriously.
Nature and Extent of Cyberstalking
Although online harassment and threats can take many forms, cyberstalking shares important characteristics with offline stalking. Many stalkers - online or off - are motivated by a desire to exert control over their victims and engage in similar types of behavior to accomplish this end.
As with offline stalking, the available evidence (which is largely anecdotal) suggests that the majority of cyberstalkers are men and the majority of their victims are women, although there have been reported cases of women cyberstalking men and of same-sex cyberstalking. In many cases, the cyberstalker and the victim had a prior relationship, and the cyberstalking begins when the victim attempts to break off the relationship.
However, there also have been many instances of cyberstalking by strangers. Given the enormous amount of personal information available through the Internet, a cyberstalker can easily locate private information about a potential victim with a few mouse clicks or key strokes.
The fact that cyberstalking does not involve physical contact may create the misperception that it is more benign than physical stalking. This is not necessarily true. As the Internet becomes an ever more integral part of our personal and professional lives, stalkers can take advantage of the ease of communications as well as increased access to personal information.
In addition, the ease of use and non-confrontational, impersonal, and sometimes anonymous nature of Internet communications may remove disincentives to cyberstalking. Put another way, whereas a potential stalker may be unwilling or unable to confront a victim in person or on the telephone, he or she may have little hesitation sending harassing or threatening electronic communications to a victim. Finally, as with physical stalking, online harassment and threats may be a prelude to more serious behavior, including physical violence.
While there are many similarities between offline and online stalking, the Internet and other communications technologies provide new avenues for stalkers to pursue their victims.
A cyberstalker may send repeated, threatening, or harassing messages by the simple push of a button; more sophisticated cyberstalkers use programs to send messages at regular or random intervals without being physically present at the computer terminal.
California law enforcement authorities say they have encountered situations where a victim repeatedly receives the message "187" on their pagers - the section of the California Penal Code for murder. In addition, a cyberstalker can dupe other Internet users into harassing or threatening a victim by utilizing Internet bulletin boards or chat rooms.
For example, a stalker may post a controversial or enticing message on the board under the name, phone number, or e-mail address of the victim, resulting in subsequent responses being sent to the victim. Each message -- whether from the actual cyberstalker or others -- will have the intended effect on the victim, but the cyberstalker's effort is minimal and the lack of direct contact between the cyberstalker and the victim can make it difficult for law enforcement to identify, locate, and arrest the offender.
Law enforcement response: specialized units show promise in combating cyberstalking
A growing number of law enforcement agencies are recognizing the serious nature and extent of cyberstalking and taking aggressive action to respond. Some larger metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles and New York, have seen numerous incidents of cyberstalking and have specialized units available to investigate and prosecute these cases.
For example, Los Angeles has developed the Stalking and Threat Assessment Team. This team combines special sections of the police department and district attorney's office to ensure properly trained investigators and prosecutors are available when cyberstalking cases arise. In addition, this specialized unit is given proper resources, such as adequate computer hardware and advanced training, which is essential in investigating and prosecuting these technical cases.
Similarly, the New York City Police Department created the Computer Investigation and Technology Unit. This unit provides regular training for police officers and prosecutors regarding the intricacies of cyberstalking investigations and prosecutions. The training includes understanding how chat rooms operate, how to obtain and preserve electronic evidence, and how to draft search warrants and subpoenas.
The programs in New York and Los Angeles both ensure that enforcement personnel receive proper training and have adequate resources to combat cyberstalking. Other jurisdictions are also taking steps to combat cyberstalking. One of the critical steps is learning how to trace communications sent over computers and the Internet. Traditional law enforcement techniques for surveillance, investigation, and evidence gathering require modification for use on computer networks and often require the use of unfamiliar legal processes.
Law enforcement at all levels must be properly trained to use network investigative techniques and legal process while protecting the privacy of legitimate users of the Internet. These techniques are similar to those used in investigating other types of computer crime. Just as a burglar might leave fingerprints at the scene of a crime, a cyberstalker can leave an "electronic trail" on the web that properly trained law enforcement can follow back to the source. Thus, technological proficiency among both investigators and prosecutors is essential.
At present, there are numerous efforts at the federal and state levels that focus solely on high technology crimes. These units do not focus on cyberstalking alone, but they have the necessary expertise in computers and the Internet to assist in the investigation of cyberstalking when it arises.
For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has Computer Crime Squads throughout the country, as well as the National Infrastructure Protection Center in Washington, to ensure cybercrimes are properly investigated. Additionally, they have Computer Analysis and Response Teams to conduct forensics examinations on seized magnetic media. Similarly, in 1996 the Justice Department established the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section within the Criminal Division.
These units have highly trained personnel who remain on the cutting edge of new technology and investigative techniques. In addition, each U.S. Attorney's office contains experienced computer crime prosecutors. These individuals -- Computer and Telecommunications Coordinators -- assist in the investigation and prosecution of a wide variety of computer crimes, including cyberstalking. In addition, at the state level, several attorneys general have established special divisions that focus on computer crimes.
Although high-tech expertise is essential, police and prosecutors have developed other strategies for helping victims of cyberstalking. An Assistant U.S. Attorney reported that in two recent cases of e-mail harassment, he asked an FBI agent to confront the would-be harasser. The agent advised that such behavior might constitute a criminal offense. In both instances, the harassment stopped. Such strategies, however, are no substitute for prosecution under federal or state law in the appropriate circumstances.
A critical step in combating cyberstalking is understanding stalking in general. In many instances, cyberstalking is simply another phase in an overall stalking pattern, or it is regular stalking behavior using new, high-technology tools. Thus, strategies and techniques that have been developed to combat stalking in general often can be adapted to cyberstalking situations.
Fortunately, many state and local law enforcement agencies have begun to focus on stalking, and some have developed special task forces to deal with this problem. In addition, the Attorney General submits an annual report to Congress entitled "Stalking and Domestic Violence." This report compiles valuable information about what the Department of Justice has learned about stalking and stalkers and is a valuable resource for law enforcement agencies and others.
Cyberstalking is expected to increase as computers and the Internet become more popular. Accordingly, law enforcement at all levels must become more sensitive to cyberstalking complaints and devote the necessary training and resources to allow proper investigation and prosecution.
By becoming technologically proficient and understanding stalking in general, agencies will be better prepared to respond to cyberstalking incidents in their jurisdictions. In addition, state and local agencies can turn to their local FBI or U.S. Attorney's office for additional technical assistance. Also, computer crime units and domestic violence units should share information and expertise, since many cyberstalking cases will include elements of both computer crime and domestic violence.
Finally, law enforcement must become more sensitive to the fear and frustration experienced by cyberstalking victims. Proper training should help in this regard, but law enforcement at all levels should take the next step and place special emphasis on this problem. Computers and the Internet are becoming indispensable parts of America's culture, and cyberstalking is a growing threat. Responding to a victim's complaint by saying "just turn off your computer" is not acceptable.
Federal cyberstalking laws
Federal law provides a number of important tools that are available to combat cyberstalking. Under 18 U.S.C. 875(c), it is a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, to transmit any communication in interstate or foreign commerce containing a threat to injure the person of another. Section 875(c) applies to any communication actually transmitted in interstate or foreign commerce - thus it includes threats transmitted in interstate or foreign commerce via the telephone, e-mail, beepers, or the Internet.
Although 18 U.S.C. 875 is an important tool, it is not an all-purpose anti-cyberstalking statute. First, it applies only to communications of actual threats. Thus, it would not apply in a situation where a cyberstalker engaged in a pattern of conduct intended to harass or annoy another (absent some threat).
Also, it is not clear that it would apply to situations where a person harasses or terrorizes another by posting messages on a bulletin board or in a chat room encouraging others to harass or annoy another person (as in the California case, discussed infra.).
Certain forms of cyberstalking also may be prosecuted under 47 U.S.C. 223. One provision of this statute makes it a federal crime, punishable by up to two years in prison, to use a telephone or telecommunications device to annoy, abuse, harass, or threaten any person at the called number. The statute also requires that the perpetrator not reveal his or her name. See 47 U.S.C. 223(a)(1)(C). Although this statute is broader than 18 U.S.C. 875 -- in that it covers both threats and harassment -- Section 223 applies only to direct communications between the perpetrator and the victim.
Thus, it would not reach a cyberstalking situation where a person harasses or terrorizes another person by posting messages on a bulletin board or in a chat room encouraging others to harass or annoy another person. Moreover, Section 223 is only a misdemeanor, punishable by not more than two years in prison.
The Interstate Stalking Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, makes it a crime for any person to travel across state lines with the intent to injure or harass another person and, in the course thereof, places that person or a member of that person's family in a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury. See 18 U.S.C. 2261A. Although a number of serious stalking cases have been prosecuted under Section 2261A, the requirement that the stalker physically travel across state lines makes it largely inapplicable to cyberstalking cases.
Finally, President Clinton signed a bill into law in October 1998 that protects children against online stalking. The statute, 18 U.S.C. 2425, makes it a federal crime to use any means of interstate or foreign commerce (such as a telephone line or the Internet) to knowingly communicate with any person with intent to solicit or entice a child into unlawful sexual activity. While this new statute provides important protections for children, it does not reach harassing phone calls to minors absent a showing of intent to entice or solicit the child for illicit sexual purposes.
Thus, although current statutes address some forms of cyberstalking, there are gaps in current federal and state law. As outlined in the Recommendations below, States should review their existing stalking and other statutes to determine whether they address cyberstalking and, if not, expeditiously enact laws that prohibit cyberstalking.
Federal legislation also is needed to fill the gaps in current law. While most cyberstalking cases will fall within the jurisdiction of state and local authorities, there are instances - such as serious cyberharassment directed at a victim in another state or involving communications intended to encourage third parties to engage in harassment or threats - where state law is inadequate or where state or local agencies do not have the expertise or the resources to investigate and/or prosecute a sophisticated cyberstalking case.
Therefore, federal law should be amended to prohibit the transmission of any communication in interstate or foreign commerce with intent to threaten or harass another person, where such communication places another person in fear of death or bodily injury to themselves or another person.
Because of the increased vulnerability of children, the statute should provide for enhanced penalties where the victim is a minor. Such targeted, technology-neutral legislation would fill existing gaps in current federal law, without displacing the primary law enforcement role of state and local authorities and without infringing on First Amendment-protected speech.
How You Can Protect Against Cyberstalking - And What To Do If You Are A Victim
What To Do If You Are Being Cyberstalked