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Essay: Cyberstalking

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  • Published: 4 September 2022*
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Cyberstalking is an extension of traditional stalking as the offender uses a high-tech modus operandi to commit the crime (Petherick, 2007). It is defined as, “the repeated pursuit of an individual using internet-capable or electronic devices” (Reyns et al., 2012, p.1). And, repeated pursuits include any unwanted electronic communications that may be intimidating, coercive or threatening. The repetitive nature can be a terrifying experience for the victim, as they will feel a loss of control over their own life, knowing that the offender can have access to the victim at any time or any place, which impairs the victim’s sense of security. Current research suggests that cyberstalkers are more in line with the “stereotypical white-collar criminal as opposed to the street level criminal offender” (Pittaro, 2007). The figures of cyberstalking are never correct as the number and percentages are undetected or unreported, contributing to the ‘dark figure’ of crime. Reno (1999) suggests that perpetrators are motivated by an insatiable desire and need to have control, influence, and power over the victim. Consequently, despite nearly a decade of prominent research, there is limited literature available about cyberstalking (McFarlane & Bocij, 2003).

All 50 states in the US have endorsed criminal stalking statutes (Reno, 1999). In 2005, 44 states had legislated cyberstalking laws within the existing harassment or stalking laws (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2006). Reno states that it is a federal crime to conduct any foreign commerce or interstate consisting a threat that is intended to injure another person. The penalty for breaching the law is a prison sentence of maximum of five years (Reno, 1999).

The case that was analysed was based in the US (see appendix) on the topic of ‘cyberstalking’. This crime was about an ex-cop named William Rosica who created a fake person in his harassment of ex-girlfriend. Rosica created a fake online identity named ‘Katy Jones’ and stated that he was also getting harassed by this identity; investigation found he was Katy Jones. He had harassed his ex-girlfriend causing “inflicted terrible emotional pain” by sending her hundreds of trolling and flaming emails and text messages, trying to get her to commit suicide as well as already knowing that she was “emotionally fragile”. Previous research findings suggest that cyberstalker’s tend to use emails to threaten and harass victims, more than any other electronic device (Petrocelli, 2005). Emailing grants an offender to repeatedly transmit threatening, harassing, hateful, obscene messages (Petrocelli, 2005). Rosica had admitted to all his crimes when the judge Geraci had led him “through a litany of questions about his harassment”. Rosica was charged with the maximum sentence of five years in prison for “cyberstalking, physically stalking and harassing” and when released he would be “under the federal probation supervision for three years… and is required to seek mental health treatment” (Craig, 2018). The evidence collected from previous literature suggests that an offender can suffer from a personality disorder that can have the outcome of paranoia to delusional behaviours and thoughts (Mullen et al., 1999), this can explain why Rosica was told to “seek mental health” after his sentence. In addition, it is clear the following statement is true for this case, “ex-intimates tend to be the most common targets” (Sheridan & Grant, 2007).

Theories/typology

Cyberstalking comes under the typology of cyber-violence, which is an online behaviour that leads or constitutes to assault against the well-being of an individual, or a group (Herring, 2002). As, cyberstalking is involved using the internet to gather personal information about the victim, this is a violation of privacy creating a form of intimidation leading to in some cases explicit threats. This can affect the victims’ emotion, psychological and physical well-being. Ellison and Akdeniz (1998) had constructed the term cyberstalking as an online harassment, due to the crucial component of harassment being a repetitive behaviour. The main element of this case is ‘cyberstalking’ with the involvement of ‘harassment’. This brings in theory by Ellison & Akdeniz (1998), as the harassment of Rosica was repetitive until reported. In addition, other claims stated, “seven other women have told authorities that he also harassed them in a similar fashion to the victim in the criminal case”.

The first theory that is going to be discussed is, ‘Space Transition Theory (STT)’ (Jaishankar, 2008) which was created to demonstrate the causation of crimes in cyberspace. STT is an explanation about the nature of the behaviour of the individual who brings out their non-conforming and conforming behaviour in the physical and cyberspace. This theory argues that people tend to behave differently when moving from one space to another.

The second theory is ‘Liquid Modernity’ developed by Bauman. In liquid modernity, the web has a momentary value, the past and future become meaningless as coordinates of the psychological life of the individuals’ present (Bauman, 2009). The reason and reality tend to break down the subject having the illusion of being omnipotent, omnipresent and immortal (Carabellese et al., 2014). Therefore, on the web, the other cannot be met as a real person but in terms of an empty simulacrum, convenience and appearance (Baudrillard, 1981), lacking its own identity defined in its spatial and temporal coordinates (Cassinari, 2005).

Space Transition Theory concludes seven key postulates, (1) person, with repressed criminal behaviour (in the physical space) have a propensity to commit a crime in cyberspace which they would not commit in physical space, due to their status and position. Due to Rosica being an ex-cop restricted him committing a behaviour in physical space, as he had to maintain his status and position of being an ex-cop. (2) Identity flexibility, dissociative anonymity and the lack of deterrence factor in the cyberspace provides offenders with the choice to commit cybercrime. Rosica had the accessibility to create a fake online identity in which he did (Katy Jones), this was the identity flexibility factor. This meant that his real identity was hidden/anonymous (dissociative anonymity). And he also knew there is no certainty of punishment, especially with an unknown identity (lack of deterrence). (3) Criminal behaviour of offenders in cyberspace is likely to be imported into physical space, vice versa. Information was not given about Roscia’s physical stalking but he was charged five years for this being one of the reasons. (4) Intermittent ventures of offenders into the cyberspace and the dynamic spatiotemporal nature of cyberspace provide the chance to escape. Roscia knows that in cyberspace there is no continuous risk in getting caught, as the changing of space and time can contribute to the offenders’ escape. (5) (a) strangers are likely to unite together in cyberspace to commit a crime in the physical space and (b) associates of physical space are likely to unite to commit a crime in cyberspace. This claim does not apply to this case study, as Roscia was the only offender involved. (6) Persons from closed society are more likely to commit crimes in cyberspace than persons from open society. The fact that Roscia was an ex-cop meaning that he could have continued living in a closed society as being so used to it from his job; this theory can relate to the reasoning behind his offence. (7) The conflict of Norms and Values of Physical Space with the Norms and Values of cyberspace may lead to cybercrimes. The last key point is an overall statement of most online crimes.

There are five key postulates in ‘liquid modernity’ which are based on interactions online, four of which relate to this current study.

(1) A lack of morality, in this case, Rosica’s stalking behaviour is morally wrong.

(2) To promote instantaneous gratification, in order for Rosica to continue the harassment of his ex-girlfriend and several others suggest that he was receiving some pleasure from it, hence why his repetitive behaviour continued.

(3) Action not interaction is important, the action of his stalking behaviour was the problem, and the interaction had made the issue worse.

(4) Aggression is easier on the web, as there is no emotion due to no physical embodiment; which can relate to many online cybercrimes.

Everything is possible online because no physicality is required. The vulnerability and individualities can be concealed to play out identities, as shown in this case, although Rosica created a fake online identity to protect his identity and therefore, claiming his vulnerability against Katy Jones, “Jones was harassing both Rosica and his ex-girlfriend, Rosica claimed”. The self is rebuilt online, sometimes frequently, as we had discovered other claims about Rosica repeating the same behaviours, perhaps with several different identities for each victim?

The STT applies better to the crime than liquid modernity theory, as all seven key postulates apply to cyberstalking. Whereas, in liquid modernity there is one key point that cannot be included to the crime which is ‘body become an object’. There is more evidence and detail to apply to STT for cyberstalking compared to liquid modernity.

Although, these theories both apply, there are limitations, such as, the testing of STT by several scholars suggests that there are some issues on the difficulty of testing this theory (Holt, Bossler & Spellar, 2015; Holt & Bossler, 2016). It is stated that, getting data from the offender is a difficult task, as Kethineni, Cao and Dodge (2017, pp-13-14) note, “the case studies provide some support for space transition theory, more data is needed to test all of the propositions empirically.” Whereas, Bauman’s idea of liquid modernity cannot be immediately accepted, as it is stated to be constructed out of unsound materials (Atkinson, 2008). However, both theories would be compatible if were to combine, making it easier to find a cyberstalking perpetrator efficiently.

Consider alternative explanations (internet to blame?) (online distribution effect)

Although the entire case is stated under ‘cyberstalking’, the law tends to forget that there is also a case of ‘catfishing’ involved. Catfishing is defined as, “when someone creates fake profiles on social media sites to trick people into thinking they are somebody else” (Flynn, 2018). Rosica had used catfishing to stalk his ex-girlfriend by creating the identity of Katy Jones. ‘Space Transition Theory’ and ‘Liquid Modernity’ both also apply to ‘catfishing’, as with each point made for both theories in relates to both behaviours (cyberstalking and catfishing) that were presented in this case.

As the internet has undergone a rapid growth it has advanced in just about every aspect of society and is accessible and available in everywhere in the globe (McFarlane & Bocii, 2003; Jaishankar & Sankar, 2005). This, therefore, means, that the internet grants cyberstalkers to access personal information with a relative ease (Reno, 1999). Information that once was private and confidential can now be easily accessed through brokerage websites, such as those websites with cater to individuals searching for loved ones or friends (Reno, 1999). A few of these websites are free but others will charge a small fee in exchange for an individuals’ personal information. Other information is posted on social media sites by most individuals, therefore this helps the offender to gather as much information as they can in preparation for their offence.

Therefore, the internet could be a factor to blame for the occurrences of online crime, especially for cyberstalking, as the internet is appealing to cyberstalkers and other online offenders due to its ease of use, relatively inexpensive cost and its anonymity in avoiding detection and seeing out victims (Reno, 1999).

‘Online Disinhibition’ tends to play a role in this, especially ‘Benign online disinhibition’, which is “self-disclosure, defined as revealing personal information to others” (Lapidot-Lefler & Barak, 2015). People on the web tend to loosen up, feelings are less restrained which results in the person into being more open online (Suler, 2004). This information is then spread across the internet through friends/family etc., which can be captured by the offender, almost as an open portal. These factors may be the possible reason for why cybercrime exists around the world.

Regarding this, anyone can be a victim of stalking especially when an individual releases personal information online. Previous evidence states that the “majority of cyberstalkers are men and the victims are women” (Pittaro, 2007). Female stalkers are more known to harass and stalk their ex-partners, unlike male stalkers (Purcell, Pathe, & Mullen, 2001). Female stalkers are known to be similar to males when it comes to psychiatric status and demographic profiles. A study was conducted in 2002 by an online victim group, which found that 71% of cyberstalking victims were female and 59% of them had a previous relationship with the stalker (Hutton & Haantz, 2003). Approximately, “four out of five victims are female and females are eight times more likely to be stalking victims” (Pittaro, 2007) of acquaintances or ex-partners (Hutton & Haantz, 2003).

How does linking these helps further research? (critical)

The linking of the two theories and online distribution, gives the insight of the crime conducted by the offender, as well as the reason of its allowance. This can help further research to identify the offender’s behaviour by applying the theories and knowing the high chance of how the crime was instigated by the victim.

Are there implications for cybersecurity, personal safety, or other crime

Law enforcement officials have recommended that to avoid being a victim, individuals should choose names that are age and gender ambiguous and if can, to prevent posting personal information online (Petrocelli, 2005). To support the investigation, cyberstalking victims are considered to notify the perpetrator that the communication is not wanted and should stop instantly (Petrocelli, 2005). It is advised that communication from the perpetrator should be saved which can be used as prosecutorial evidence (Petrocelli, 2005). Victims also could purchase a software to block or ignore unwanted electronic communication and to contact the individuals Internet Service Provider (ISP), as they have an agreement to restrain abuse of services (Hutton & Haantz, 2003). The ISP can abolish the offenders service for violating this policy without any worry of legal recourse by the offender (Hutton & Haantz, 2003). Despite that, ISPs are more focused on helping customers with unwanted pop-ups, virus protection and avoiding spam rather than helping to protect against online abuse/harassment (Hutton & Haantz, 2003). The issue is in the fact that complaint procedures are somewhat vague and hard to locate which results in an incomplete follow-up on such complaints (Reno, 1999). Victims can also consult in a victim advocacy groups for support, assistance and advice on cyberstalking (Petrocelli, 2005).

Conclusion

As the years go on, cyberstalking is expected to grow internationally as the internet becomes even more popular. It is straightforward that, modern life cannot be performed adequately without regular access to the internet (Hutton & Haantz, 2003). The theories applied to this case, both gave an insight to the perpetrators behaviour and supports both facts that, people behave differently when they move from one space to another and the illusion of being omnipotent, omnipresent and immortal results in these types of behaviours. This proves that theories are crucial in cybercrime, as they identify the crime and the gives an insight to the perpetrators mind. In regards, cyberstalking is genuine and is worth further criminological research (Bocij & McFarlane, 2002).

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