Privacy glossary

Cyberstalking

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

What is cyberstalking?

Cyberstalking is repeated, premeditated harassment that occurs primarily online or via other electronic tools, and can involve intimidation and threats to personal safety. A victim may experience fear, distress, and an overall reduction in quality of life as a result of cyberstalking. The cyberstalker is often a family member, friend, or acquaintance (such as a coworker or fellow student). Cyberstalking may be driven by a need for revenge or control, or it may be rooted in anger or obsession.

The driving factors behind a cyberstalker’s actions are strong enough that a cyberstalker can be difficult to deter, even when they’re faced with legal consequences. In some instances, cyberstalking is paired with physical stalking. However, the increasingly social aspect of the Internet has triggered a shift from physical stalking to cyberstalking. A stalker no longer needs to rely on physical proximity to their victim.

What does cyberstalking look like?

Cyberstalking can take many forms, such as:

  • Verbal attacks like libel, slander, or defamation.
  • Manipulative actions such as blackmail and identity theft (often to hijack a victim’s online accounts, rather than for financial theft).
  • Actual threats to a victim’s physical safety, including publicizing the victim’s contact information (a tactic called doxing).
  • Sexual harassment, including sextortion (where a cyberstalker threatens to expose private, sensitive information unless the victim meets the stalker’s demands).

The main medium for cyberstalking is through online communication channels. The stalker may harass the victim directly through emails and texts, or more publicly through comments posted to social media, forums, and blogs. A stalker may also send harassing material directly to the victim’s friends or family, or other connections like the victim’s employer.

While online communication channels are the primary tool for a cyberstalker, the attacks can take other forms. A victim’s physical activities can be tracked using geolocation devices, or a keylogger can be used to record a victim’s online activity. Stalkerware (also called spyware) is a type of malware that combines these tools and, when installed on the victim’s device, tracks all of the victim’s activity, including emails, text messaging, and location. Stalkerware can even control a device’s camera and microphone.

Is cyberstalking the same as cyberbullying?

Cyberstalking shares many attributes with cyberbullying—in fact, cyberstalking is often considered a type of cyberbullying. They both involve hurtful actions committed persistently, usually by an anonymous harasser. But cyberstalking is distinguished by additional properties of intimidation, premeditation, and a desire for control. Fear for the victim’s safety is also a larger concern with cyberstalking.

Like cyberbullying, cyberstalking usually starts with an individual stalker but can evolve to a group attack. A stalker may dox a victim to expand the number of harassers. Cyberstalking can include an element of monitoring the victim’s activity (online or in real life) that isn’t usually present in cyberbullying. A cyberstalker is usually an adult, but the victim might be another adult or a minor.

How is cyberstalking different from trolling?

The term trolling applies to attacks that happen one time, or perhaps occasionally. Cyberstalking is more persistent than trolling. Where one-time individual actions like trolling may not be illegal, the persistent nature of attacks that characterize cyberstalking are generally more harmful to the victim, and are often illegal.

Effects of cyberstalking on the victim

Cyberstalking can affect every aspect of a victim’s quality of life, from their emotional wellbeing to their daily activities. Impacts on a victim include:

  • Emotional trauma like anxiety and depression.
  • Fear for personal safety, which can lead to a curtailing of public activity, both in real life and online.
  • Social isolation, especially when the victim doesn’t know who the stalker is; this can lead to a loss of trust in friends and acquaintances, and even further isolation.
  • Employment issues, if the cyberstalking is job related. It may also lead the victim to miss work or quit their job.
  • Guilt, especially if a victim believes the cyberstalking situation is their own fault, or worries they’ll be accused of overreacting and thus delays or avoids seeking help. Similarly, embarrassment about the nature of the cyberstalking (especially sexual harassment) can affect the victim’s willingness to seek help.

Laws and regulations

In the eyes of U.S. law, cyberbullying and cyberstalking are interchangeable. However, the U.S. Federal law on stalking does include a clause for cyber-related actions. Punishment of cyberstalking ranges from restraining orders and fines to jail time. The Combat Online Predators Act, signed into federal law in 2020, increased the punishments for stalking a minor. Further, U.S.-based legislation on cyberstalking can be found at the state level. Internationally, only a handful of countries have legislation addressing cyberstalking.

Prosecution of cyberstalking can be complex, given that cyberstalking can happen across jurisdictions (the stalker and the victim may live in different places). It can also be tricky to prove in court, since cyberstalking isn’t a single event. The accumulating effect of stalking leaves opportunity for it to be “explained away” on an instance-by-instance basis.

How to protect yourself against cyberstalking, and what to do if you’re a victim

It’s important to remember that cyberstalking is a crime and is not the victim’s fault. If you feel you (or someone you know) is being cyberstalked, and would like more specific advice and resources, check out The Cyber Helpline, RAINN, or this Online Harassment FIeld Guide from Pen America. For workplace cyberbullying, you can also try tallpoppy.com.

There are also some basic steps you can take to help prevent yourself and those you know from becoming a victim of cyberstalking:

  • Think carefully about what you post publicly online, especially if that post might be viewed by a wider audience. Try not to give away personal details like your age, home address, place of employment or school.
  • Remove location metadata from photos and videos before sharing them online.
  • To protect your friends and family, don’t post photos or other information about them without permission.
  • Use the privacy settings of the apps you use, and ensure you’re in control of who gets to interact with you and your posts.
  • Use gender neutral, non identifying handles on social media.
  • Protect information about your physical location, since a cyberstalker can use an IP address to help locate a victim’s home or workplace. A VPN can help disguise your IP address, as can disabling app-based location services when you’re not using the apps.

Combining these suggestions with some good basic online privacy and security habits, like updated antivirus software and strong passwords, can help build a protective wall around your online presence.

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