Stalking: an age-old problem on a new platform

Blog post
Related Theme: Cyber crime

Stalking: an age-old problem on a new platform

The shadowy figure causing you to look over your shoulder as you cross the street.

The bouquet of flowers left at the doorstep with no note from the sender.

The colleague, or fellow gym user, who bumps into’ you far too often.

This is what we historically think of as being associated with stalking but for a long time now, the perpetrators have been becoming faceless.

No longer is timing or even geography a consideration for the modern-day cyberstalker who has 24/7 access to his victims and can do it all through the pseudo-anonymity of a computer screen, phone or social network.

The growth of the internet has led to the traditional crimes of stalking and harassment being transformed in scale and form.

Cyber harassment causes substantial distress and disruption to daily activities for victims and as such, should be responded to which is why our academics at the University of Bedfordshire are working side by side with investigators to combat this problem.

We know from our research of crimes in Bedfordshire and further afield that the online environment provides conditions where expression is often more uninhibited and can become sinister. This, coupled with the challenges of policing the cyber arena, presents an issue which our Police Innovation-funded project is seeking to address.

Victims may often respond to stalking by disconnecting from the internet, which in the modern world is becoming increasingly difficult to do our work, our finances, our social lives, all are wired to the net.

As part of the work we are doing alongside Bedfordshire Police, we are exploring a digital solution to the issue of cyberstalking which involves the creation of a digital risk assessment for crimes reported, an app to support victims and gather evidence, and an educational correctional course for offenders.

Our research has identified that evidential difficulties in investigating cyber crimes such as stalking, harassment and revenge porn are the main barrier to prosecution so together with the police we can help to improve the experience for victims and see more perpetrators brought to justice for the distress and terror their online activities can cause.

But, far from being evil digital geniuses, our work has uncovered the fact that most attacks are quite mundane and easy to carry out. We are committed to dispelling the myths, educating law enforcers on the distinctions between crimes and ensuring the victim experience is consistent as well as educating the keyboard warriors and cyber stalkers on the consequences of their actions.

What can victims look out for if they think they may be being cyber stalked?

  • A stalker may know things about you that you didn’t tell them
  • They become demanding or controlling, wanting to know who your friends are, why you haven’t been online etc.
  • They know your whereabouts despite you not telling them
  • They start adding your friends and family to their list, even though they don’t know them.
  • You are getting multiple communications from the same person or accounts you think may be theirs multiple times a day, through multiple channels.
  • You have been abused or threatened over more than one platform.
  • Your social media accounts have been hacked.
  • You have had unwanted communication from people you do not know as a result of information or fake profiles published about you.
  • You believe spyware or tracking systems may have been installed on your devices or in your home/car/property.
  • You are in fear of violence as a result of communications
  • You are concerned about your or your children’s safety
  • You have had to make changes to your daily routine as a consequence
  • The abuse, online intrusions or unwanted communication have gone on for longer than a few weeks

If you are concerned you are being harassed online, or that you are a victim of cyberstalking, contact police on 101. Always call 999 in an emergency.

Dr Emma Short is director at the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research at the University of Bedfordshire. She and colleague Professor Jim Barnes are among the academics working with Bedfordshire Police and other partners to drive forward an innovative project to improve the investigation of and outcomes for cyberharassment and stalking.