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Cyberstalking is the use of the Internet or other electronic means to stalk or harass an individual, a group of individuals, or an organization. It may include the making of false accusations or statements of fact (as in defamation), monitoring, making threats, identity theft, damage to data or equipment, the solicitation of minors for sex, or gathering information that may be used to harass. The definition of "harassment" must meet the criterion that a reasonable person, in possession of the same information, would regard it as sufficient to cause another reasonable person distress. Cyberstalking is different from spatial or offline stalking in that it occurs through the use of electronic communications technology such as the internet. However, it sometimes leads to it, or is accompanied by it. Both are criminal offenses. Cyberstalking shares important characteristics with offline stalking; many stalkers – online or off – are motivated by a desire to control their victims.
A cyberstalker may be an online stranger or a person whom the target knows. A cyberstalker may be anonymous and may solicit involvement of other people online who do not even know the target.
Cyberstalking is a criminal offense that comes into play under state anti-stalking laws, slander laws, and harassment laws. A cyberstalking conviction can result in a restraining order, probation, or even criminal penalties against the assailant, including jail.
Stalking is a continuous process, consisting of a series of actions, each of which may be entirely legal in itself. Technology ethics professor Lambèr Royakkers writes that:
[Stalking] is a form of mental assault, in which the perpetrator repeatedly, unwantedly, and disruptively breaks into the life-world of the victim, with whom he has no relationship (or no longer has), with motives that are directly or indirectly traceable to the affective sphere. Moreover, the separated acts that make up the intrusion cannot by themselves cause the mental abuse, but do taken together (cumulative effect).
When identifying cyberstalking "in the field," and particularly when considering whether to report it to any kind of legal authority, the following features or combination of features can be considered to characterize a true stalking situation: malice, premeditation, repetition, distress, obsession, vendetta, no legitimate purpose, personally directed, disregarded warnings to stop, harassment, and threats.
A number of key factors have been identified:
Cyberstalking is a form of cyberbullying.
Mental profiling of digital criminals has identified psychological and social factors that motivate stalkers as: envy; pathological obsession (professional or sexual); unemployment or failure with own job or life; intention to intimidate and cause others to feel inferior; the stalker is delusional and believes he/she "knows" the target; the stalker wants to instill fear in a person to justify his/her status; belief they can get away with it (anonymity); intimidation for financial advantage or business competition; revenge over perceived or imagined rejection.
Harassment and stalking of women online is common, and can include rape threats, and other threats of violence, as well as the posting of women's personal information. It is blamed for limiting victims' activities online or driving them offline entirely, thereby impeding their participation in online life and undermining their autonomy, dignity, identity, and opportunities.
Cyberstalking of intimate partners is the online harassment of a current or former romantic partner. It is a form of domestic violence, and experts say its purpose is to control the victim in order to encourage social isolation and create dependency. Harassers may send repeated insulting or threatening e-mails to their victims, monitor or disrupt their victims' e-mail use, and use the victim's account to send e-mails to others posing as the victim or to purchase goods or services the victim does not want. They may also use the Internet to research and compile personal information about the victim, to use in order to harass him or her.
Profiling of stalkers shows that almost always they stalk someone they know or, via delusion, think they know, as is the case with stalkers of celebrities or public persons in which the stalkers feel they know the celebrity even though the celebrity does not know them. As part of the risk they take for being in the public eye, celebrities and public figures are often targets of lies or made-up stories in tabloids as well as by stalkers, some even seeming to be fans. In one noted case in 2011, actress Patricia Arquette quit Facebook after alleged cyberstalking. In her last post, Arquette explained that her security guys chewed her out and warned her Facebook friends to never accept friend requests from people they do not actually know. Arquette stressed the importance of differentiating that just because people were on her page or seemed to be friends or fans did not really mean they were safe. "I'm going to say it again because it is important", the actress wrote about persons on her page, "it doesn't mean they are safe". The media issued a statement that Arquette planned to communicate with fans exclusively through her Twitter account in the future.
Web 2.0 technologies have enabled online groups of anonymous people to self-organize to target individuals with online defamation, threats of violence and technology-based attacks. These include publishing lies and doctored photographs, threats of rape and other violence, posting sensitive personal information about victims, e-mailing damaging statements about victims to their employers, and manipulating search engines to make damaging material about the victim more prominent. Victims are often women and minorities. They frequently respond by adopting pseudonyms or going offline entirely. A notable example of online mob harassment was the experience of American software developer and blogger Kathy Sierra. In 2007 a group of anonymous individuals attacked Sierra, threatening her with rape and strangulation, publishing her home address and Social Security number, and posting doctored photographs of her. Frightened, Sierra cancelled her speaking engagements and shut down her blog, writing "I will never feel the same. I will never be the same."
Experts attribute the destructive nature of anonymous online mobs to group dynamics, saying that groups with homogeneous views tend to become more extreme as members reinforce each other's beliefs, they fail to see themselves as individuals, so they lose a sense of personal responsibility for their destructive acts, they dehumanize their victims, which makes them more willing to behave destructively, and they become more aggressive when they believe they are supported by authority figures. Internet service providers and website owners are sometimes blamed for not speaking out against this type of harassment.
Corporate cyberstalking is when a company harasses an individual online, or an individual or group of individuals harasses an organization. Motives for corporate cyberstalking are ideological, or include a desire for financial gain or revenge.
Preliminary work by Leroy McFarlane and Paul Bocij has identified four types of cyberstalkers: the vindictive cyberstalkers noted for the ferocity of their attacks; the composed cyberstalker whose motive is to annoy; the intimate cyberstalker who attempts to form a relationship with the victim but turns on them if rebuffed; and collective cyberstalkers, groups with a motive. According to Antonio Chacón Medina, author of Una nueva cara de Internet, El acoso ("A new face of the Internet: stalking"), the general profile of the harasser is cold, with little or no respect for others. The stalker is a predator who can wait patiently until vulnerable victims appear, such as women or children, or may enjoy pursuing a particular person, whether personally familiar to them or unknown. The harasser enjoys and demonstrates their power to pursue and psychologically damage the victim.
Cyberstalkers find their victims by using search engines, online forums, bulletin and discussion boards, chat rooms, and more recently, through social networking sites, such as MySpace, Facebook, Bebo, Friendster, Twitter, and Indymedia, a media outlet known for self-publishing. They may engage in live chat harassment or flaming or they may send electronic viruses and unsolicited e-mails. Cyberstalkers may research individuals to feed their obsessions and curiosity. Conversely, the acts of cyberstalkers may become more intense, such as repeatedly instant messaging their targets.
More commonly they will post defamatory or derogatory statements about their stalking target on web pages, message boards, and in guest books designed to get a reaction or response from their victim, thereby initiating contact. In some cases, they have been known to create fake blogs in the name of the victim containing defamatory or pornographic content.
When prosecuted, many stalkers have unsuccessfully attempted to justify their behavior based on their use of public forums, as opposed to direct contact. Once they get a reaction from the victim, they will typically attempt to track or follow the victim's internet activity. Classic cyberstalking behavior includes the tracing of the victim's IP address in an attempt to verify their home or place of employment.
Some cyberstalking situations do evolve into physical stalking, and a victim may experience abusive and excessive phone calls, vandalism, threatening or obscene mail, trespassing, and physical assault. Moreover, many physical stalkers will use cyberstalking as another method of harassing their victims.
The first U.S. cyberstalking law went into effect in 1999 in California. Other states include prohibition against cyberstalking in their harassment or stalking legislation. In Florida, HB 479 was introduced in 2003 to ban cyberstalking. This was signed into law on October 2003.
While some laws only address online harassment of children, there are laws that protect adult cyberstalking victims. While some sites specialize in laws that protect victims age 18 and under, current and pending cyberstalking-related United States federal and state laws offer help to victims of all ages.
Some states in the U.S. have begun to address the issue of cyberstalking:
Samantha Kelly; rape; suicide; cyberstalked; Michigan.
Amanda Todd; suicide; cyberstalked; Canada.
Alexis Pilkington; suicide; cyberstalked; Long Island, NY.
In thousands of other cases, unlike the Missouri case of Megan Meier, charges either weren't brought for the cyber harassment or were unsuccessful in obtaining convictions. In the case of Samantha Kelly for instance, after her suicide, they dropped all charges against the man who allegedly raped her, saying that their only witness was dead. Still, because Samantha Kelly was underage, fourteen years old, which was quite provable, the man, who admitted having sex with her could have been charged with statutory rape. In another case of milder cyberstalking - of a man - the outcome was very different: Tyler Clementi's fellow student Dharun Ravi had used a webcam to record him kissing another man. Ravi was convicted in of bias intimidation and invasion of privacy and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, more than $11,000 in restitution and three years of probation. The judge ruled that he believes Ravi acted out of "colossal insensitivity, not hatred Tyler Clementi." [not in citation given] As in all legal instances, much depends on public sympathy towards the victim, the quality of legal representation and other factors that can greatly influence the outcome of the crime – even if it will be considered a crime. In Samantha Kelly's case, she came from a working class family, lived in a mobile home with her other three siblings and didn't seem to have a lawyer, at least none publicly spoke in her behalf, only her mother and her friends spoke up for her.
Cyberstalking has also been addressed in recent U.S. federal law. For example, the Violence Against Women Act, passed in 2000, made cyberstalking a part of the federal interstate stalking statute. Still, there remains a lack of legislation at the federal level to specifically address cyberstalking, leaving the majority of legislative prohibitions against cyberstalking at the state level.
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 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.
Online identity stealth blurs the line on infringement of the rights of would-be victims to identify their perpetrators. There is a debate on how internet use can be traced without infringing on protected civil liberties.
In Australia, the Stalking Amendment Act (1999) includes the use of any form of technology to harass a target as forms of "criminal stalking."
In Spain, it is possible to provide information about cyber-crime in an anonymous way to four safety bodies:
Stalking, including cyberstalking, was made a criminal offence under the Polish Criminal Code on 6 June 2011.
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