Cyber Harassment and Cyberstalking

This is another example of an old crime where technology affords new opportunities. Would-be cyberstalkers can send large numbers of distressing emails. put up malicious websites. post information on bulletin boards, chat rooms and social networking sites, or originate misleading material which purports to come from the victim and causes them distress. In a 2003 case, a client of a solicitor who felt that his case had been poorly dealt with sent a series of obscene emails to members of the solicitors firm and set up a bogus internet account in the name of one of its staff with a password of ‘bentlawyer1’; an email account was also set up called: judical-corruption@yahoo.co.uk. In a 2001 case, a man put up intimate pictures and contact details of a former girlfriend without her consent. As a result she received unwelcome text and voice messages.

In 2002, a in a Yahoo chat room was sufficiently serious as to amount to a harassment offence. Usually these actions are offences under the Prevention from Harassment Act 1997. The Act gives the victim the right to approach the civil courts for a restraining order but also creates a number of criminal offences. if the harassment takes place in someones home there is an additional offence under Section 126 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005; it is not clear whether this provision would extend to the situation where a harasser was ‘virtually’ in someones home or its vicinity through the medium of a computer and telecommunications link. You should be able to find a number of examples and case studies by searching news archives. Many of these are trivial – except to those immediately involved.

For perpetrators who use identifiable computers, it is usually possible to convict them on the basis of what is found in their email sent box or, where they have used web-based emails and social networking sites, from what can be recovered from their internet cache (wait until Week 18 to find out how). There is also a separate offence under Section 43 of the Telecommunications Act 1984, which covers the situation where a message is sent over a public telecommunications link that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. But usually, charges will be made on the basis of the Prevention from Harassment Act 1997.

It can of course be very difficult to track down people guilty of these crimes for a variety of reasons. Firstly it takes a large amount of resources and a specific skill set to track down people even in relatively straightforward cases. That is the ones who make no attempt to hide themselves or their IP address simply relying on the ‘anonymity’ of the internet. Unfortunately nowadays it’s actually quite simple to hide your location, for instance the VPN being used in this page to watch BBC iPlayer in Ireland is actually a sophisticated VPN system with high encryption. Even if you were to pursue the VPN service company for logs or details they would be unable to supply them as they are purged in accordance with current EU privacy laws.

John Simpson
Blocks on VPNs, Privacy and Technology.