Electronic Harassment

Electronic harassment involves the use of electronic devices by an individual or companies to invade a person’s privacy or property. This is often done to gather information illegally or for the purpose of causing emotional, psychological, or physical harm. Electronic harassment comes in many forms and types, ranging from electronic surveillance to electronic sabotage or jamming, to the use of directed harmful high-energy devices, radiation and laser devices, and implants to harm or control a person’s behavior. Electronic surveillance involves the imposed observation of a person, or his or her belongings or property, through the use of electronic listening, video or transmitting devices, spectral imaging using heat or infrared light, sound, or other radiation sources. Electronic sabotage or jamming is done to intentionally cause a person’s personal property (e.g., a computer) to malfunction or be destroyed. Directed harmful high-energy devices such as high-energy microwave devices and other weapons can kill or disable an individual. The use of radiation and laser devices is also a very common form of harassment and is known to induce physical harm that manifests in symptoms such as dizziness, breathing difficulty, headaches, and being momentarily blinded by light in the case of lasers.

The most common forms of electronic harassment occur through electronic communication, including cyberharassment or cyberstalking. Cyberharassment can be directly or indirectly aimed at a victim. For example, a direct form of cyberharassment may involve sending intimidating or ambiguous emails or sabotage in the form of spamming whereby the victim is bombarded with junk messages or computer viruses. Indirectly, online harassment may take the form of a cyberstalker impersonating the victim online and sending fraudulent spams or abusive emails in the victim’s name. In other instances of cyberharassment, victims may be subscribed without their permission or consent to a number of mailing lists, resulting in their receiving hundreds of unwanted emails daily. Being a victim of online harassment can be not only annoying, but it can also undoubtedly cause considerable anxiety and fear. It is considered an invasion of privacy and thus a violation of the individual’s rights.

Electronic surveillance has been used by governmental agencies and committees as well as by private detectives and employers in the workplace to monitor individuals and gather information. The use of these devices has advantages for law enforcement and national security—for example, devices can be used to gather information on dangerous and or suspicious individuals or organizations. Likewise, electronic surveillance can be used in the gathering and assessment of information relating to espionage and hostile actions directed against the United States. However, the increased use of these devices triggers a debate focusing on states’ interests versus the need for safeguards to ensure the rights provided by the constitution. An important aspect of this debate happened in the post-Watergate era and triggered the enactment of new legislation and adherence to laws governing the use of electronic devices. A basic question that needs to be answered is whether or not the intelligence community can employ nonconventional methods to check crime while preserving constitutional rights.

Some would argue that electronic surveillance violates the very rights it purports to protect. For example, a number of amendments (e.g., the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, Fourteenth), to some extent, prohibit illegal invasion of privacy. In addition, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of these amendments in matters relating to personal privacy have allowed for the expansion of civil rights and liberties. However, balancing individual rights and national security can be challenging. History has shown that wiretapping and bugging were used by law enforcement to gather data during Prohibition, under Harding’s administration, and by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for partisan purposes. In 1950, President Truman used a directive to broaden the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s intelligence-gathering function to conduct electronic surveillance. These activities and others have resulted in the increased need for legislation and judicial restraint to protect law-abiding citizens.

State and Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation have addressed the use of electronic surveillance. In 1928, in Olmstead v. United States, the Supreme Court held that wiretapping was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Similarly in 1942, in the case of Goldman v. United States, the Court applied the doctrine of physical trespass to conclude that a nontelephonic device placed against a wall was not intrusion on a constitutionally protected area. These two decisions guided the Court’s reasoning in subsequent decisions relating to the use of electronic surveillance until the decisions of Silverman v. United States in 1961 and Katz v. United States in 1967. In Silverman, the Court ruled that a “spiked” microphone placed into a heating duct to overhear incriminating evidence was an illegal search and seizure; and in Katz, the Court stated that placing a microphone outside a public telephone to overhear incriminating evidence constituted a violation of privacy. The Federal Communication Act of 1934 and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Street Act of 1968 were major legislations that regulated the use of electronic surveillance devices. Another issue related to electronic surveillance is whether the president has authority to authorize electronic surveillance. The Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 alludes that in sensitive matters of national security, the presidency has the discretionary power to authorize intelligence gathering from foreign countries, embassies, and individuals, but it discourages the use of electronic surveillance against private U.S. citizens.

While not all surveillance is considered illegal, it can be deemed as harassment when federal agencies, congressional committees, the Central Intelligence Agency, private detectives, and individuals use microrecorders, covert hidden cameras, or tiny microphones to bug and spy on other individuals. Indeed, electronic surveillance, when used as a tool for national security can limit and ultimately repudiate the individual’s right to privacy. A review of the use of technology at the domestic level has shown that indiscriminate use can leave innocent citizens vulnerable to attacks on rights to their personal privacy.

Nelseta Walters

See also Cell Phone Tracking ; Creeping ; Cyberstalking ; Wrist and Ankle Monitoring Devices

Further Readings

Advanced Electronic Security Co. Electronic Harassment (n.d.). http://www.bugsweeps.com/info/electronic_harassment.html (Accessed December 2014).

David-Ferdon, Corrine and Marci Feldman Hertz.Electronic Media and Youth Violence: A CDC Issue Brief for Researchers. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009. http://eric.ed.gov/?q=Electronic+Harassment+&ft=on&id=ED511647 (Accessed January 2015).

Education Partnership Inc. Research Into Practice: Cyberbullying (n.d.). http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED538543.pdf (Accessed January 2015).

Ellison, L. and Y. Akdeniz. “Cyber-Stalking: The Regulation of Harassment on the Internet.” Criminal Law Review (December Special Edition: Crime, Criminal Justice and the Internet), (1998).

Goldman v. United States, 316 U.S. 129 (1942).

Hall, Jeffrey R. Cyberstalking and Electronic Harassment: How Far Should Facebook “Creeping” Go? (February 8, 2012). http://hallrustom.blogspot.com/2012/02/cyberstalking-and-electronic-harassment.html (Accessed January 2015).

Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967).

Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928).

Silverman v. United States, 365 U.S. 505 (1961).