Cyberstalking, Victimization, and the Experience of Fear

Ars Technica has a good piece on how cyberstalkers and bullies operate, with reporting based on studies (circa 2006, admittedly) and some anecdotal evidence. In effect, the mechanisms to stalk and bully online are often easy to use, reasonably accessible, and capable of significant intrusion into people’s lives. However, what struck me most poignantly was the concluding section of the article:

In this particular case, going to law enforcement wasn’t going to be much of an option. The woman said she had gotten rid of the BlackBerry, so there was no way to perform forensics on it to gather evidence. The same was true of her father’s computer, which the technician had wiped clean.

That’s a common problem in dealing with these sorts of cases, Southworth said. “Some victims just want their device clean and just want the stalking to stop. But if you clean off the device, you’re destroying the evidence.” And for victims who are trying to deal with an abusive relationship, trying to do anything to remove malware from a phone or computer could put the victim in danger. “Even looking for the spyware can raise the risk,” Southworth said, because the software could alert the attacker of the attempt and trigger violence.

And even when software is removed, the persistence of such stalkers usually means that they won’t stop their behavior—they’ll just take different approaches. That, paradoxically, is an upside for law enforcement, Southworth said. “They don’t stop, so if she wants law enforcement to get involved,” she said referring to the victim, “there’s likely another form of stalking going on for them to catch him with.”

People who haven’t experienced stalking, or the fear of stalking, may not appreciate the emotional desire to just make it stop. Such desires are often based on an attempt to feel ‘safe’ again, often when doing simple things like buying groceries, waiting for a bus, or just going home. As such, wanting to remove the suspicious tracking systems – instead of leaving them there, and maintaining the fear, in the hopes of a criminal arrest – will often take priority over ‘catching’ the perpetrator. But, at the same time, there is often a fear that the very act of ‘making the surveillance stop’ could lead to physical consequences. It’s a lose-lose experience, where any decision merely modifies the ‘kind’ of fear instead of terminating the experience of fear itself.

Moreover, removing suspected surveillance-ware may not alleviate the fear of being monitored: most technical systems (effectively) operate like magic for the majority of the computer-using population. How the surveillance-ware was even installed, or if it was all purged, or if it could infect a person’s computer systems again, will often pervade how a person uses computers. In light of specific concerns (surveillance) that are imprecisely directed (i.e. is my phone, my computer, or other device infected and, if so, would I even know?) a person may simply avoid some actions or actively engage in deceptions to ‘throw off’ someone who might be watching.

In effect, concerns of possible but undetected surveillance are often accompanied by heightened privacy and security efforts. These efforts might be more or less effective (or even needed!), and taking such efforts will almost certainly diminish a person’s ‘normal’ uses of services (e.g. Facebook) that their (not-stalked/bullied) friends and colleagues get to enjoy. Moreover, the experience of having to use such privacy and security techniques is representative of the scarring left by online stalking and bullying: ‘normality’ becomes defined as a defensive posture online based on (often) physical fears. No one’s ‘normal’ should be predominantly defined by fear.

It’s this broader emotional fear that is challenging to address, both in terms of law (i.e. getting the data needed to pursue a meaningful conviction or punishment) and personal mental health (i.e. learning to ‘trust’ systems that aren’t really understood and that have previously compromised a person’s life possibilities).

In Canada, the federal government has recently introduced legislation ostensibly meant to crack down on cyberbullying linked to the unauthorized sharing of a person’s intimate images. While criminalizing the sharing of such images may be a helpful addition to the Criminal Code for certain kinds of cases, doing so doesn’t address the broader challenges linked to cyberstalking and cyberbullying. Addressing these challenges requires something else – though I don’t know what – that meaningfully responds to the societal issues associated with online stalking and bullying in a more holistic manner, a manner that frees people from the persistent fear of being a victim despite going to either law enforcement or removing the stalking-ware.

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