A recent spike in cyberharassment that in some cases included threats of violence has raised questions about the effectiveness of law enforcement in cyberspace, where the abusers’ trail is often harder to follow.
The absence of a direct line of contact makes it “a little more difficult” for law enforcement to track online harassers, said Hale Guyer, a cybercrime law enforcement instructor and a retired special investigator.
A police officer patrolling a neighborhood could arrest a person calling out names or blowing his or her horn in the middle of the night to harass someone. But a harasser who abuses a victim in an online post or uses a third party to do the harassment “throws a whole different element in it than if I would do a direct harassment,” said Guyer.
“Law enforcement has always had a difficult time keeping up with what’s going on online,” said Johns Hopkins University’s Patricia Wallace, Director of the Center for Talented Youth Online and Information Technology.
She says there have been egregious cases, with perpetrators putting up fake posts to harass others — even drive them to suicide — where police were unable to do much.
In cases like that, the problem is “if you don’t know who is coming at you, you don’t know where to look,” said Elaine Davies of California’s Chapman University.
“If I were to decide that I wanted to stalk somebody or harass somebody, I could do it from another state,” said Guyer. “I could do it from another country. There are no geographic limitations on this stuff anymore. So it is definitely a challenge.”
There have been cases where online harassers have been caught, says Guyer. But law enforcement agents have to prove who was behind the harassment; which can be difficult, and the issue of jurisdiction creates another barrier if the perpetrator is in another state or another country.
Davies says police might go back and forth across state lines, for example, and then say it is not their problem. And that means that the victims are not getting the legal protection they need.
“The prosecutor is going to be sitting there with a decision to make if … he or she has all the witnesses in another state,” said Guyer. “Is it going to be worth their while to file a misdemeanor or a non-serious charge, let’s say, and make arrangements to fly all of these people four of five states away back?”
Police will get involved if the online harassment is deemed cyberstalking, if there is a direct threat of physical harm or fear of physical harm from the perpetrator, said Jayne Hitchcock, President of Working to Halt Online Abuse.
She says a lot of people probably are not aware that laws exist to punish online harassment, even though many countries have them. And even the way existing laws are phrased can be problematic, says Wallace.
“There’s not that much that law enforcement can do because they don’t have laws that say that,” she said.
A troubling part of that, adds Davies, is that cyberharassment, at least in the U.S., has to be repetitive and has to strike fear in its victim before the law can be invoked, whereas an onlooker might not agree that the situation merits fear.
“If those two elements are not there, then you don’t have an issue, according to the Federal Act of Cyberstalking,” she said.
That, in her view, is a “huge cop-out” because of the physical harm that persistent cyberharassment and bullying inflict on victims.
“Until that victim is met with grave bodily harm, law enforcement isn’t going to step in,” she said. “We need to change the laws.”
Good cyber laws do exist, argues Guyer, although jurisdictional problems might arise if a prosecutor is unable to find case law to help inform how a new case should be handled — a problem that should be addressed in training for both law enforcement agents and prosecutors.
“When I teach my classes,” Guyer said, “I usually ask people sitting in the classes — and they are all law enforcement — what percentage of people in your agency are trained to investigate cybercrimes? And I get a very low amount. I get three, four, five percent.”
A lot of law enforcement agencies are doing a good job, said Hitchcock. In many cases, she says all it takes is a visit from a police officer to the perpetrator’s home to warn him or her to stop the harassment or end up in jail. But she concedes that there are law enforcement agencies that might not be able to handle cybercrime and should get more education and training.
Many U.S. states require recruits to undergo mandatory training in various aspects of police work. But Guyer says “to date, there is no mandatory training in computer crimes.”
Training should include lawyers, judges and all concerned parties, says Mary Anne Franks of Miami University’s School of Law, because part of the problem is that “law enforcement is very slow to catch up with technology.”
“When you are talking about cybercrime, the technology is going so fast, it is very difficult to have the laws catch up on it,” added Guyer.
He recalls a 1999 report that warned that law enforcement agencies should be prepared as cybercrimes become more prevalent. Despite new laws, he says law enforcement agencies need the time and the training to do their investigations.
“We’re still playing catch-up in a lot of different areas,” he said.