Digital Safety Conference, London, 19th June

Reviewed by Jan Collie.

Cyberstalking is the new urban terror – the message rang home loud and clear at the Digital Safety Conference in London last week (Friday).

For although, in Cyberspace, no-one hears you scream, increasing numbers of people are getting off on imagining it.

The evils of instant communication – texting, live chat, social networking – were laid out in lurid detail before delegates meeting in a brick-lined space known as The Brewery, near the city’s Barbican.

Tales of horror: physical threats and psychological manipulation, poured out. The family pursued relentlessly via emails, bulletin board postings and websites dedicated to damaging their names for more than five years. The teenager who suffered Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome following a campaign of anonymous texts. The Information Age exposed in all its gory.This, said former Scotland Yard detective, Hamish Brown, was the intimidation that kills lives, the silent terror that dogs every waking moment for harassed victims. Who stalks and why is the subject of ongoing research but the trend is that more men stalk women than the other way around. The style of mental torture is similar to that shown in cases of domestic violence, Brown asserted, and the perpetrator often has no previous convictions.

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As the first police officer to charge an offender with Grievous Bodily Harm of the mind, Brown passionately believes that victims of cyber violence should be taken more seriously.

“It’s not right that you should have to be punched on the nose for something to happen,” he commented, and asked for a campaign to educate the public on the issue.

Two alarming presentations based on personal experience followed. Graham Brown-Martin described how he, his wife and small child ran from Jamaica to London after enduring a series of death threats and vicious slanders posted on the Internet. The virtual bullying followed them and has continued for five years. Despite continued threats, including an invitation to all-comers to murder the family published with a map of their whereabouts, the authorities have been unable to help. Differences in international law were quoted as the main difficulty.

Cases such as this pointed up why moves to bring in cross-border E-Policing ought to be stepped up, said Jayne Hitchcock, who founded an organization called WHO@ (Working to Halt Online Abuse) as a result of her own first-hand experience. Hitchcock, who was instrumental in getting cyberstalking laws passed in the US, called for ISPs to actively help victims by offering them on-site complaint forms and responding to their pleas. The majority of cyberstalking cases stop where ISPs threaten to close down the perpetrator ’s account, she claimed.

The digital world needed to be ‘safer by design’, said Dr. Richard Clayton of Cambridge University, who also stressed the role to be played by ISPs. Manufacturers should be compelled to ship products which were ‘secure by default’, he added.

Ever inventive, though, human nature looked likely to circumvent such measures. Clayton drew attention to advice currently being given to readers of an online women’s magazine. This included detailed instructions on how to check out partners, ex-partners and rivals using the social networking sites Facebook and MySpace. This positive incitement to cyberstalk ran completely contrary to the theme of the day but was interesting for its insight into a culture which apparently sees no irony in shouting for personal protection whilst believing in its right to revenge.

Broadly, Clayton was for educating online users about current dangers but said that education had its limits as the subject was too complex. His general advice was that people should regularly patch their OS and all programs, that they should patch their router firmware and change the router’s default administrator password.

These basic security steps would, of course, help ward off possible system attacks from the outside. But, perverse as ever, humankind seems determined to escalate information risk in private even as it pays lip service to information assurance in public. The modern measure of true love, Richard Clayton said, is to share your passwords with your partner. When things go wrong, this naturally makes it easy for the newly scorned to snoop on their ex online.

Panel discussions followed the Powerpoints. Notable amongst these was a gathering of guests from o2, Vodaphone, Phonepay Plus and 3 who managed to sound only mildly concerned about the digital safety of the UK’s 75 million mobile users. Blame spreading, if not exactly shifting, was high on the agenda here with everyone from ISPs through to parents and teachers being called on to help children and users in general to ‘manage their own information’.

Jan Collie can be contacted through The Digital Detective website at

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