An Interview with Paul Bocij on Cyberstalking

Cyberstalking is a growing menace that affects both men and women. While crimes like stalking have always existed, advancements in technology have made it easier for stalkers to take the digital road.

Various online channels can be utilized to victimize someone, and though cyberstalking has the potential to cause serious harm to the ones targeted, strangely enough, not much is being said or done to help victims.

Paul Bocij

PureVPN sat down with Paul Bocij, a respected writer and lecturer, who has published various articles on cybercrimes, to help our readers understand more about cyberstalking. So, here it goes:

Q.1 – Let’s start with your story, you have been a Lecturer at Aston Business School for more than 9 years. If you don’t mind sharing your journey, what led you to become who you are today: a lecturer, an author and a trainer?

I originally started out as an apprentice engineer. Following an accident that left me with a spine injury, I found myself out of work and with a young family to support. While recovering, I became interested in computers and began to teach myself all about them. I eventually decided to make a new career in technology, so I went to university.

During my studies, I took on many part-time jobs so that I could support my family. I ended up writing articles for computer magazines, teaching technology part-time and even fixing computers. I became qualified as an adult education tutor and published my first book just as I entered university.

After graduating I was lucky enough to be given a job in the University I had studied at. Within a few years, my colleagues and I published Business Information Systems, which quickly became very successful and now stands as the longest established UK textbook of its kind.

Although I enjoyed teaching, I was having a great deal of success as a writer and consultant. In the late 1990s, I decided to move into consultancy full-time. I spent 10 years or so traveling all over the country and earned a reputation as a kind of technology/business troubleshooter.

Financially secure and having accomplished just about everything I had set out to do, I decided to return to academia and the thing I enjoyed most – teaching. This led to me obtaining a position at Aston Business School, where I joined as a Teaching Fellow.

I became interested in cyberstalking when a friend asked me to help track down someone who was ruining a young woman’s online business. Since cyberstalking was completely new and there were few sources of help available, I soon began to receive requests for help from others experiencing harassment.

I became fascinated by the motivations and behaviors of those who chose to victimize others online and wanted to learn as much as I could. There was very little research in this area so I decided to do my own. My book, Cyberstalking: Harassment in the Internet age, came out of my research and my experience of trying to help other victims of cyberstalking.

I’m very proud to say that the book (and my research in general) has resulted in lots of “firsts”, such as the ideas of serial cyberstalking, group cyberstalking, corporate cyberstalking and even reactive cyberstalking. In turn, this work has helped many people end the harassment they experienced.

Q.2 – Cyberstalking is a plague that is ruining lives across the world. You have also contributed and in fact you are actively working on its awareness. What preventive measures would you recommend to the readers so that they can avoid bumping into threats like cyberstalking?

It’s important to remember that anyone can become a victim of cyberstalking, no matter how careful they are. This is because even the most innocent and inoffensive acts can be interpreted as provocation by some people. In one case I dealt with, for instance, just misspelling a single word triggered a campaign of cyberstalking that eventually placed people’s lives in danger.

However, there are things that can be done to reduce the likelihood of becoming a cyberstalking victim. I think the two simplest things are these:

First, learn about netiquette – the informal rules that are supposed to govern how we act online. Understanding how to behave online reduces the risk of causing offence to people. We should also try to educate people generally about being sensible online. This is because there is research suggesting that educating people about netiquette reduces the chances of them victimizing others.

Second, be careful about how much information you disclose about yourself online. I once dealt with a case where a cyberstalker was able to create highly detailed profile of his victim using online sources only. The information was so detailed, it even contained information about the route that the victim’s child took to school each day. There are lots of ways to limit what people can learn about you so I can’t go into detail here, especially since you can find lots of advice online about how to safeguard your personal information. However, a couple of things to think about are:

  • Think carefully before disclosing any Does the person need to know the information? How might the information be misused?
  • If you are particularly concerned, you can prevent people from profiling you by stopping them linking together information about you. If you always use the same user name, for instance, it will be fairly easy to piece together information from different sources. Just changing one or two pieces of information when you complete a profile can prevent this.

Some people may want to go even further by using encryption and other methods to protect their information. In my case, for example, I use a couple of VPN services, including PureVPN so that my Internet traffic can’t be intercepted.

As mentioned earlier, nothing can guarantee that someone won’t become a victim of harassment but we can reduce the odds drastically just by thinking about how we act online, especially in terms of how we treat other people and how much we disclose about ourselves.

Q.3 – What do you say about the criticality of the role that the government and its cyber law enforcement agencies are playing to fight against this never-ending plague? And, what are the missing areas that need indispensable attention?

Government and law enforcement face an almost impossible task in trying to protect the public from cyberstalkers and other online menaces. A lot of the things a government might do to reduce the problem would almost certainly impact on other areas. As an example, try to reduce online hate speech and you might also end up restricting free speech.

Law-enforcement agencies around the world face two common problems. The first is that they don’t have enough trained personnel to investigate cases. Worldwide, there is a huge shortage of people with the necessary skills to investigate crimes involving technology.

The second is that they don’t have enough resources to investigate anything but the simplest of cases. We should remember that investigating a single case of online harassment might take hundreds of labour hours. This can translate into huge costs and can tie up sparse resources for long periods of time. As an example, decrypting e-mail messages or recovering data from a mobile phone can cost thousands of pounds. Now imagine the further costs and complications if cyberstalkers and victims are located in different regions or even different countries.

Ultimately, politicians and law enforcement officials need to make decisions about which crimes will be investigated and which won’t. Does a cyberstalking case take precedence over a burglary?

A long-term approach might involve investing in training law enforcement personnel, perhaps supporting organizations that provide support for victims, educating people on how to avoid becoming victims, and so on. This will need people in power who are determined to tackle the problem and who are willing to invest as needed.

In the short-term, we need to involve technology experts in discussions about how to use whatever existing resources we have most effectively. The conversation needs to include people who deal with cyberstalking on a daily basis and those who represent the interests of victims. At present, my impression is that the people who are talking loudest are those who don’t really know anything about cyberstalking!

Q.4 – Paul, what’s your opinion on the existing cyber laws? Are they contributing enough to encountering cyber stalking issues?

For me, this is a fairly simple question. Most countries have existing legislation related to threatening behavior, publishing offensive content, and so on. Long before countries began to bring in specific legislation covering cyberstalking, determined prosecutors were able to protect people against harassment using these existing laws. In my opinion, the existing laws provided much more flexibility and could lead to stronger penalties for cyberstalking and related behaviours. Although I welcome cyberstalking legislation because it increases public awareness, I have strong reservations about its effectiveness.

Q.5 – We should support and help unfortunate victims of cyberstalking! How can we step forward in this regards? And do you agree that it is the responsibility of everyone?

When a crime occurs in the real world, public-spirited people will step forward to act as witnesses, help victims, and so on. There is no reason why we shouldn’t all do the same in the online world. I don’t mean that people should become vigilantes – that’s an incredibly foolish and dangerous thing to do – but we should try to help and support people when we can. Even talking about cyberstalking can help to make a change by raising awareness.

Q.6 – You have written a couple of books “Cyberstalking and Dark side of Internet”. What is your inspiration behind writing on this topic? Would you share some Key takeaways from them?

As mentioned earlier, I wanted to learn more about phenomena like cyberstalking but there was very little research available. I also wanted to try and share some of the things I’d learned with other people. Writing a book seemed a natural way of collecting together what was known about cyberstalking and making it available to everyone. I also hope that I debunked some myths and gave people advice to help them stay safe online. If they also enjoyed reading my work, that’s a welcome bonus.

Q.7 – Lastly, would you like to give any quick message (related to cyberstalking) to our readers

Don’t let the thought of cyberstalkers and other deviants put you off from using the Internet. Compared to all of the benefits that we can gain from the web, the risks are fairly small.

Wrapping Things Up

We hope that our interview with Paul will help you understand what cyberstalking is all about and how to prevent falling victim to it. Also, don’t forget to leave your valuable feedback in our comments section below!

Shahrukh Ghanchi is cybersecurity enthusiast, media analyst and movie buff all rolled into one. Always scouring the web for news, industry experts and trends.

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