Scan the headlines and you’ll see a frightening wave of stories about cyberstalking. There even are draft laws hitting the books in some states (Illinois already has a law).
The stories are bizarre, from the truck driver accused of stalking a teen actress to the case of a 12-year-old Washington-state girl charged with cyberstalking a classmate. Then there are the seemingly innumerable cases of jilted partners turned cyberstalkers.
Especially unsettling is that cyberstalking lacks any borders. Example: When an Australian teen stalked a 14-year-old Wisconsin girl he met on Facebook, his jig was up only after he sent her a Domino’s pizza and the chain gave up his IP address to law enforcement officials.
And yet many security experts contend that it is usually very easy to shake off a cyberstalker. But the method that works best is paradoxical in the extreme.
First, a definition: What is cyberstalking? Bryan Tan of Keystone Law Corp. in Singapore defined it this way to ZDNet: "Generally, stalking behavior must be persistent, intentional and prolonged."
Cyberstalking also can involve perceived threats, harassment, and worse.
Usually, too, it includes not just direct communications (email, SMS) but also indirect -- attack blogs about the victim, third-party Tweets (so and so is an XYZ), brutal third-party Facebook posts, and so on.
There is a lot of blurring of cyberstalking with cyberbullying and cyberharassment; the distinctions among them are not that clear.
What is clear is that cyberstalking can add up to a lot of pain for the victims. Michael Roberts, a forensics investigator specializing in victims of Internet abuse, says that he has had one client who committed suicide because he could not deal with the attacks.
Who are the cyberstalkers? Brooklyn Law School professor Lisa Smith offers this taxonomy:
Stalking is generally an issue with three categories of defendants. First and most commonly the parties are known to each other; teenage girls in a dispute at school, ex-intimate partners, employees with a “beef” at work, etc. The second category involves those parties who are actual strangers or hardly known to each other and generally involves a mentally ill defendant with an obsession involving the victim – this is particularly dangerous. The last category is a hybrid – parties who get to know each other online, have never actually met, and the stalker insists on pursuing this online relationship.
That much is known. What is not known is the end game: "You never know where stalking will end," says Frank Ahearn, a onetime expert in what might be called "Internet black arts" (such as how to vanish) that can empower victims to dodge their bullies. Most cases seem to end with Internet abuse only -- but at least some morph into in-person encounters, and those, suggests Ahearn, are the really scary ones.
Back to dodging cyberstalkers: One strategy is to have little or no online life. No Facebook profile, no LinkedIn, no Twitter, and an email address that has very little distribution. A stalker can’t stalk when he cannot see the target, say the experts.
But this does not always work. "Disappearing online can help, but if the stalker is determined to make contact the Internet provides numerous opportunities to find the victim," says Smith.
Which leads to another, better strategy -- perhaps ideal for the techno savvy -- which is to do the opposite and hide in plain sight, thoroughly confusing both search engines and stalkers.
Say the goal is to make Frank M. Ahearn of Venice Beach, Calif., vanish from the eyes of cyberstalkers. Ahearn says he would start by creating Websites, blogs, and email addresses associated with Frank M. Ahearn of Marina del Rey, of Santa Monica, of West Los Angeles, of Mar Vista, Calif. Little bits of truth would be filtered in with falsehoods.
Put up a dozen sites -- and then a dozen more. Link one to another, pushing all higher in rankings.
“Create as many alter egos as you need to confuse Google,” agrees Roberts.
And suddenly the attacking blogs and posts start to disappear in a thick fog of falsehood and misidentification.
There’s the irony. The best way to hide from stalkers just may be to be too visible. When you are seen everywhere, they can no longer find the real you.
— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.