Introduction:

While the act of stalking has long existed, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the behaviour became criminalised. Since then, society has been propelled into an era where meeting someone new is as easy as swiping right – and so it is no wonder that as technology has evolved, the practice of stalking has too. Incidences of this harassment carried out over the “interwebs” are rare. This practice is an extension of traditional stalking — and the internet is enabling the stalkers to take their “hobby” to a new platform. In light of this, cyberstalking is defined as the use of electronic mediums to stalk or harass an individual or group. This harassment may include (but is not limited to): false accusations, threats, slander, monitoring and libel. In this blog we will discuss about cyber stalking, how it can affect lives of victims, how to protect yourself from cyber stalking.

 

Cyber Stalking:

Cyber stalking refers to the act of harassing a victim by a stalker through the means of e-mail, instant messaging (IM), or messages posted on a discussion group or website. The stalker reckons upon the anonymity offered by the Internet in order stalk their victims in a confidential manner. Cyber Stalking is something different from ordinary spamming because a Cyber stalker targets a specific victim with mostly threatening messages whereas the spammer targets a large group of individuals with annoying messages. [1]

The growth of the Internet, a multitude of social media websites, and the proliferation of information available online creates new arenas that cyber stalkers use to hunt and terrorize their victims. Those new arenas combined with advancements in technology that allow individuals to access social media accounts and the Internet at large from any location, lead to a situation in which victims of cyber  stalking may experience constant bullying and/or harassment. [2]

Nature of Cyber Stalking:

There are myriad ways of committing cyber stalking which can be resorted to by the perpetrators. Computer stalking is one of the very popular means by which the cyber stalker exploits the internet and the windows operating system in order to assume control over the computer of the user. The cyber stalker can communicate directly with the user as soon as the user computer connects to the internet and assume control of the user’s computer. An example of this kind of cyber stalking was the case of a woman who received a message stating ‘I’m going to get you’. The cyber stalker then opened the woman’s CD-ROM drive in order to prove he had control of her computer. Keystroke logging makes the recording of every keystroke possible and viewing the computer desktop in real time.

E-mail account of the user may also be used as a tool for cyber stalking. Access to an e-mail account of an innocent user may be gained by the hacker and that address may be used to send messages that may be threatening or offensive. Some may send electronic viruses that can infect the victim’s files. A person’s mailbox may be filled with thousands of unwanted messages in order to make the account useless by the harasser. It is known as mail bombing. Also a cyber- stalker may indulge in spamming.

Online stalkers may post insulting messages on electronic bulletin boards signed with the e-mail address of the person being harassed or statements about the victim to start rumors about him through the bulletin board system which is basically a local computer that can be connected directly with a modem and allows users to leave messages in group forums to be read at a later time.

Many cyber stalking cases begin from arguments that can take place in chat rooms or news groups. While chatting, participants type line messages directly to the computer screens of other participants. Chat-line users may capture, store and transmit these communications to others outside the chat service. Same is the case with the message which is posted to a public newsgroup as it is also available for anyone to view, copy and store and such public messages can be accessed by anyone at any time even years after the message was originally written which can be misused by stalkers. Cyber stalker may indulge in flaming wherein he may engage in live chat abuse of the user.

Factors Providing Ignition to a Cyber Stalker

Factors that motivate stalkers to commit brutal and barbaric crime of cyber stalking are envy, unemployment or failure in job or life coupled with an intention to intimidate their victims. Sexual harassment is a common experience offline and recent technological advancements have provided more impetus to it online also since internet reflects real lives and people. Pursuing the victim under the garb of anonymity online has made stalking easy for sexual gratification. Feeling of revenge and hatred may also lead to cyber stalking when something knowingly or unknowingly said or done by the victim online offends someone. Obsession for love may be a pertinent cause for initiating cyber stalking. It can start with an online romance which moves to real life only to break-up once the persons really meet and one of them refuses to take “NO” for an answer. Another case may be when obsessive stalking starts in real life and then graduates to virtual world. Worst part about this kind of stalking is that perpetrator and victim are initially in an intimate relationship so it leads to sharing of personal information which is later on used to harass the victim.

Prevention Methods:

  1. Real name must never be used as screen name of user ID and also personal information must never be disclosed in public places like chat rooms.
  2. ISP and Internet Relay Chat network that have an acceptance use policy which prohibits cyber stalking should be preferably used.
  3. Learn about and use privacy settings. Each social media platform has unique privacy setting. For example, some platforms allow users to tailor who may see their profiles and the extent to which another person can see their information. Become familiar with the privacy policy for each of the platforms used.
  4. If available, use a two-factor or double authentication security option. Two-factor authentication options ask the user to supply a second form of authentication when 5 accessing a social media or other online account. This requires a user to enter a username and password, then supply another piece of predetermined information to access the account. The second authentication options may require the user to answer a question about the user or the account or provide a special code sent to a device (phone) or email associated with the account.
  5. Carefully consider the personal information supplied on public accounts. Hometown, current city, birth date, email address, phone number, names of family members, schools attended, places of employment, and personal pictures are bits of information someone can use to obtain other publically available information about a person. That information can include the existence of arrest or prison records, businesses owned, residences, vehicles owned, past employers, current salary, and places frequently visited. Sharing hobbies or interests such as movies, television shows, music, places, etc. can provide cyberstalkers with information they can use to obtain more information that is personal.
  6. Do not be “friends” with or accept “follower requests” from people not personally known. The user should note on the publically viewable profile that the user does not accept association requests from people he or she does not personally know. Also, note that requestors should include a message outlining who they are and how they know the user with the request. Do not reply to requests from individuals not personally known, especially via personal email or phone. If an association request is received from someone unknown to the user, they may contact them using the platform’s messaging application and ask the requestor to verify a personal connection.
  7. Tell friends not to post your personal information (even pictures) without your permission. Many people do not grasp the amount of personally identifiable information given out when they share about another’s life online. Tell friends, both online and offline, not to share personal information about another’s life, and then remind them occasionally.
  8. DO NOT publically share pictures or other identifying information about your children or other close family members. The saying a picture is worth a thousand words is true. A cute picture of a child’s first day at school or a spouse’s running meet is full of information about the places an individual’s family members frequent. This includes where the child goes to school, the parks and movie theaters visited, and locations where family members work and play. In addition, one can unwittingly share information about another person’s child when sharing one’s own pictures. Before posting any personal images, make certain that those in the picture give permission to post their image online.
  9. Leave all those online quizzes and polls alone. Yes, those “what kind of _______ am I?” quizzes are fun, but many of them are a means for companies or individuals to collect personal information.
  10. Do not publically RSVP to events. On some social media platforms events are sometimes public and others can see when someone accepts an invitation. Even the semipublic event pages allow the “friends” of those invited to view the list of those attending.
  11. Pay attention to the information disseminated by electronic devices. On some social media platforms if the privacy settings are not set correctly, the public can see any updates posted from electronic devices (phone, tablet, etc).
  12. Use strong and different passwords for each online account. It is difficult to remember many passwords, but it is important for general security online security, and especially for victims of a cyberstalker. Make passwords strong, unique. Be sure change them every few months. [2]

 

Legal Provisions on Cyberstalking and Online Harassment:

  • Section 354 D of the Indian Penal Code which was added by the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013 specifically proscribes the act of stalking as Whoever follows a person and contacts, or attempts to contact such person to foster personal interaction repeatedly, despite a clear indication of disinterest by such person, or whoever, monitors the use by a person of the Internet, email or any other form of electronic communication, or watches or spies on a person in a manner that results in a fear of violence or serious alarm or distress in the mind of such person, or interferes with the mental peace of such person, commits the offence of stalking.
  • The victim can also additionally file a case of defamation (Section 499, IPC) against the offender. The section has bailed out those acts of stalking which are performed for the purpose of preventing and detecting crime by a person who has been entrusted with such responsibility by the state. Also, instances where pursuing such conduct was reasonable or where the person was authorized under any act cannot allude to the offence of stalking.
  • Section 354A of IPC punishes offence of sexual harassment with 3 years of imprisonment and/or fine.
  • Section 354C criminalizes the offence of Voyeurism. It is defined as the act of capturing the image of a woman engaging in a private act, and/or disseminating said image, without her consent. The section prescribes 3 years of imprisonment for the first conviction and 7 years of imprisonment on second conviction along with fine.
  • Section 503 punishes criminal intimidation as threats made to any person with injury to her reputation, either in order to cause alarm to her, or to make her change her course of action regarding anything she would otherwise do/not do. The offences under S. 499 and S. 503 are punishable with imprisonment which may extend to two years, and/or fine.
  • Section 509 of IPC comes to your rescue if someone is constantly bugging you with derogatory verbal abuse because of your gender. The section provides that any person who utters any word or makes any sound or gesture, intending that such word, sound or gesture be heard or seen by a woman and insult her modesty, shall be punished with one-year imprisonment and/or fine.
  • Section 507 punishes criminal intimidation by an anonymous communication with a term which may extend to two years of imprisonment. Vengeful posting of images or videos of rape victims is punishable with imprisonment which may extend to two years and fine under section 228a of IPC.[4]

The Information Technology Act, 2008

The IT Act of 2008 does not directly deal with the offence of stalking.

Section 72 of the Act is used to deal with the offence of stalking which reads as follows: Any person who, in pursuant of any of the powers conferred under this Act, rules or regulations made thereunder, has

  • secured access to any electronic record, book, register, correspondence, information, document or other material
  • without the consent of the person concerned
  • discloses such electronic record, book, register, correspondence, information, document or other material to any other person shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees, or with both.

Section 67 prohibits and punishes with imprisonment extending up to three years and fine for the first conviction and to five years and fine upon second conviction, the publication, transmission and causing of transmission of obscene content.

Section 67A has culled out a special category called material containing a ‘sexually explicit act’. The publication, transmission or causing of transmission of such material is punishable with imprisonment extending up to five years and fine for first conviction and to seven years and fine upon second conviction.

Section 66A of IT Act, 2008 provides:

Any person who sends, by means of a computer resource or a communication device

(a) any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character; or

(b) any information which he knows to be false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will, persistently by making use of such computer resource or a communication device,

(c) any electronic mail or electronic mail message for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience or to deceive or to mislead the addressee or recipient about the origin of such messages, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine.[5]

This section was struck down in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India in 2015 as it arbitrarily, excessively and disproportionately invaded the right of free speech and was so wide that any opinion on any subject would come under its ambit.[3]

References:

  1. Cyber Stalking, “Centre for Cyber Crime Investigation (CCCI), Noida” [Online] (https://www.cccinoida.org/cyber-stalking.html) Accessed on 30/4/2019.
  2. Cyber Stalking, “National White Collar Crime Centre” [Online] (http://www.nw3c.org/docs/research/cyberstalking.pdf?sfvrsn=10) Accesses on 1/05/2019.
  3. Pandey, A. (2018), “Laws Punishing Cyber Stalking & Online Harassment” [Online] (https://blog.ipleaders.in/cyber-stalking/) Accessed on 2/05/2019.
  4. IPC 1960.
  5. IT Act 2008.