Cyberstalking

Criminal Conduct

To be considered a crime, the invasive cyberbehavior should occur on at least two occasions, and the harassment should spread over a temporal period of at least 1 month. An isolated event of threatening someone, independently of how malicious that could be, does not meet the criteria for stalking.

Stalking was first outlawed in 1990, and since then many legislations have been passed. In England and Wales, the Protection From Harassment Act of 1997 does not define stalking but rules that a person must not pursue a course of conduct that amounts to the harassment of another person. In the United States, most legislations depict stalking as an intentional pattern of repeated or unwanted pursuit that a “reasonable” person would consider threatening or fear inducing. Antistalking laws vary not only in what behaviors are encompassed by stalking and cyberstalking but also regarding the minimum number of occurrences required (e.g., not specified; two, three, or more than three occasions) for the conduct to be assessed as criminal. Another controversial aspect is the issue of intent: Should the stalker’s intention constitute a key element for judging his or her conduct as stalking and cyberstalking, hence as criminal? The ambivalence over “no intent required” versus “the intent to place the victim in reasonable fear for their safety or the safety of their family” is still a debated issue in many legislations.

When considering cyberstalking, it becomes even more complicated to establish the intentional nature of the actions and the temporal scheme (i.e., when did it start?), which both constitute the ground for a criminal prosecution. In many states in the United States, it is still not clear whether persecuting and pursuing a victim through electronic devices constitutes or does not constitute a crime.

According to specialized literature, cyberstalking is currently defined as a group of behaviors through which an individual, group of individuals, or organization gathers information and uses communications technology to harass one or more individuals. Such behaviors may include, but are not limited to, the transmission of threats and false accusations, computer monitoring, psychological terror and control, cyberbullying, the solicitation of minors for sexual purposes, and even other organized criminal schemes that involve identity theft, data theft, or data or equipment damage.

Impact on Victims

In the definition at the beginning of this entry, obsessional refers to the persistent, pervasive, imposing, and unrequested presence of a self in the virtual space of another person or organization. Search implies an unwanted and unreciprocated shadowing of a victim, in which the matter of following the targeted victim is not only the end but also the means to satisfy one’s own abnormal pursuit. The consequences of this invasive attitude, combined with this pattern of virtual and emotional intrusions, are numerous and differentiated but have a common feature among victims: the sense of a naked threat and an overwhelming fear.

Cyberstalking can arouse extreme emotional responses in victims. State statutes vary as to whether such victim responses are necessary to determine that cyberstalking has legally taken place. However, if stalking is considered not just in legal terms but in terms of the intrusion into the life of a person, the virtual obsessional following becomes especially powerful in that it is left to the imagination of the person to ruminate about who the intruder is, how he or she looks, what he or she is capable of doing next, and where he or she actually is.

If stalking is seen only in terms of recurrently maintaining a visual and/or physical vicinity to a person, the cyber pursuit would not have any psychodynamic and energizing appeal for the perpetrator. But adding the power of unending time to the pursuit would be sufficient for galvanizing the cyberstalker, as the idea of being present in somebody’s virtual and mental space exceeds the sense of achievement of any visual and physical vicinity. It is this last aspect of cyberstalking that renders it more problematic for victims to protect themselves and for the law to control it.

The cyberspace is an unrestrained and unconfined social reality, which provides opportunities for the cyberstalker to act out his or her obsession, to the extent that, in Shakespearian terms, the stalker “waxes desperate with imagination.” In fact, while off-line stalking usually requires the perpetrator and the victim to be in geographic proximity, cyberstalkers may be across the street, across the country, or even across the world. Electronic communications technologies reduce to a minimum the barriers to harassment and threats.

Threats to Privacy and Security

The cyberstalker does not directly see, hear, touch, smell, or emotionally sense the other person but knows that the person can be reached at any time. This belief is also reinforced by the possibility of a suspension of real time. It is this divergence in space between victims and cyberstalkers that can foster opportunities for threats and the invasion of someone’s privacy. That is to say, although victims and cyberstalkers do not come together in the physical world, they do converge in cyberspace. Messages sent electronically at one time can be acknowledged at another time, and the communication game is determined by the reaction of the receiver. Even a nonreaction can trigger the fantasy of the cyberstalker.

It may be useful to recognize that the force of fantasy, as a central component of intense emotions and inexplicable behaviors, is the first element in the understanding of the psychology of cyberstalking. However, cyberstalking has become a major threat in the social and political arena; further research is necessary to understand how to intervene efficiently and effectively to guarantee the protection and security of individuals and groups.

Georgia Zara

See also Computer Surveillance ; Cyberbullying ; Cybersecurity Legislation ; Cybertheft ; Electronic Harassment ; Identity Theft ; Researching Cybercrime

Further Readings

Bocij, Paul and Leroy McFarlane. “Online Harassment: Towards a Definition of Cyber-Stalking.” Prison Service Journal, v.139 (2002).

Lloyd-Goldstein, Robert. “De Clérambault On-Line: A Survey of Erotomania and Stalking From the Old World to the World Wide Web.” In Reid J. Meloy (ed.), The Psychology of Stalking: Clinical and Forensic Perspectives. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998.

Meloy, Reid J. “Stalking (Obsessional Following): A Review of Some Preliminary Studies.” Aggression and Violent Behavior, v.1 (1996).

Meloy, Reid J. “The Psychology of Stalking.” In Reid J. Meloy (ed.), The Psychology of Stalking: Clinical and Forensic Perspectives. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998.

Miller, Neal. “Stalking Investigation, Law, Public Policy and Criminal Prosecution as Problem Solver.” In Joseph A. Davis and Marcella A. Chipman (eds.), Stalking Crimes and Victim Protection. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2001.

Reyns, Bradford W., et al. “Stalking in the Twilight Zone: Extent of Cyber-Stalking Victimization and Offending Among College Students.” Deviant Behavior, v.33 (2012).

Sheridan, Lorraine P., et al. “Stalking: Knowns and Unknowns.” Trauma Violence Abuse, v.4 (2003).