This article is written by Sumedha Basihya, pursuing Diploma in Cyber Law, FinTech Regulations and Technology Contracts from LawSikho. The article has been edited by Dhruv Shah (Associate, LawSikho) and Dipshi Swara (Senior Associate, LawSikho).
We have seen instances where due to the fear of getting stalked, women have been scared to venture out in public. But now, with our increased dependence on the internet and social media platforms, we have become vulnerable to getting stalked even while sitting inside our home. The offence of cyberstalking has been on the rise and has the potential to interfere with our privacy as well as our mental peace. According to Oxford Dictionary stalking means, “To pursue or approach stealthily”. So, ‘Cyberstalking’ in its literal sense is to pursue or approach someone stealthily in cyberspace.
With the exponential growth of technology in today’s era, an online presence is no more just a fancy-to-do-list but rather a prerequisite. It can be for entertainment purposes like scrolling through Instagram or Snapchat, for employment generation; like an account on LinkedIn enhances one’s chances of landing on a great project or getting better job opportunities, or, a professional Facebook and Instagram account which helps in boosting one’s business profile. With the technological boom and smartphone laden society, we encountered the evil of Cyberstalking invading one’s personal space, right to secrecy and safety. As we take a plunge in the ways of preventing one’s own self from cyberstalking, let us first understand the gravity of the situation at hand.
Analysing cyberstalking in the present era
According to Cyber Crime Prevention against Women and Children’s data, “In the first half of 2017 women faced at least one cybercrime in every 10 minutes”, with Cyberstalking topping the list among cybercrimes. One in every Twelve women and one in every Forty men face cyberstalking in the world today. The problem of cyberstalking has spread its tentacles wide apart including cyberbullying, online harassment, identity theft and even it has led to unwanted online sexual advances, transmitting of obscene and explicit contents and blackmailing or threatening the person to jeopardize their livelihood.
In the year 2020 itself, all the social media platforms saw a humongous rise in the number of Active Social Media Users. With the pandemic on our doorstep, most of us were forced to live a life maintaining social distancing norms and forced to take up work from home, which is now considered the new normal, dating apps also saw a great increase of users. According to the Times of India’s article, in the age of rising cyberstalking, dating apps fight digital abuse, “While Tinder recorded three billion swipes in a day globally in March last year, OkCupid saw a 700% increase in dates between March and May 2020 worldwide, with Bumble, in India, witnessing a 38 per cent rise in video calls.” According to a statement by Tinder, “Thirty-eight per cent of girls and women report being bullied online, compared to 26 per cent of men and boys. Twenty-six per cent of women aged 18-24 reported being stalked and 25 per cent reported being a target of online harassment”, which was mentioned under the same article.
The numbers are just indicating the greater problem that users of online platforms are facing every day. This automatically brings us to the next half of the issue, that is, how to protect yourself from Cyberstalking. As we have established earlier in the article that staying away from social media is no longer an option, it is thus a necessity for us to take proactive measures to keep ourselves safe online as we are doing offline.
Ways to prevent cyberstalking
Keep your professional account different from your personal account
It is recommended if you are someone who is looking for an online presence professionally, then keep all your posts in the Professional account strictly based on the work you want to showcase and not about your personal life. Whereas, the personal account that you have created mainly for engaging with your friends, colleagues or relatives should be kept in private mode and be very careful while accepting requests from strangers. It is advisable not to accept such requests until and unless you know the person or have met him/her in person.
Do not share address, phone number or email id on social media
It is very important to keep your personal data to yourself and not to share it over social media, just like you would never share your personal details with an unknown person travelling with you on the bus. Restraint yourself from sharing your phone number and email id, if it is absolutely necessary to share your email id for the ease of doing business, always use a professional email id. Social media influencers or celebrities are often seen conducting a virtual tour of their house which can lead to various problems as it becomes easy for the cyberstalker to access their homes. There have been many instances where the stalker has intruded into the victim’s home just by seeing the virtual tour of their homes and planning it accordingly.
Do not post your live location
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all other social media platforms have options by which many share their live locations, or tag the physical place they are in, which can land one into seriously troubling situations. There are many social media influencers and professionals who often share detailed information about their daily lives on online platforms which makes it easier for a cyberstalker to keep track and even gives physical access to them. In many cases, it has been observed that cyberstalkers tend to monitor their victims down to their homes. One of the recent Cases that was recorded and was published in the Times of India newspaper, “Vadodara: Cyber-stalkers haunt women cyclists using fitness apps“, where a woman who is a fitness enthusiast and a cyclist was harassed by a cyberstalker. The cyberstalker gained information about the route of cycling which she had shared on her social media page to encourage other women to take upcycling. She is not the only one, there have been many such instances where the perpetrator gained access to the live location just because of social media.
Keep the GPS (Global Positioning System) location off of your mobile or other electronic appliances
When there is no need to turn on the GPS location on your mobile or other appliances, keep it off. There are many apps that use your current location to personalize the user’s experience. But what can be ease of use of apps can also lead to the trap of a cyberstalker who either can hack or monitor your system. Always log out from your social media accounts when not in use and keep mobiles and laptops password protected.
Keep your IP addresses safe with VPN (Virtual Private Network)
While the usage of VPN can be debated and in many parts of the world it is considered illegal, using VPN in India is legal. It is often confused that VPN is only used for illegal activities, whereas, in today’s world usage of VPN has far better implications on protecting your Privacy. Browsing safely online is a tough job to do with so many data breaches happening all around the world. VPN will keep your sensitive information safe and protect them from getting stolen, although it is not a hundred per cent effective method, still, it provides an exponentially secure network.
Do not answer unknown people’s messages
Replying to unknown people’s messages can often instigate the stalker as their ulterior motive is to gain your attention towards them. Or you can politely ask them to stop sending such messages and the legal consequences that will follow if they do not stop it. Even after your intimation if the perpetrator does not stop, you can report and block that account.
Check the privacy settings before sharing or posting
Control who can see your profile and who cannot, who can share your post and restrict those with whom you do not want to share. There are several features in Facebook and Instagram which allow you to stay private or Lock your Profile and make changes in the Privacy settings to make it more personalised and secure. You can always avail these settings by going into the General Settings of the apps which helps you in keeping safe and discarding unwanted attention.
Know the legal remedies
It is always better to know the laws and other legal remedies present with cyberstalking as even after taking all the precautionary measures one can fall victim to cyberstalking.
- Every Social Media platform after the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 is bound by the rules to have a Grievance Officer, whose name and contact number has to be mentioned in the app or website. One can get directly in touch with the grievance cell of the company if the problem persists even after blocking.
- One can register a complaint with the National Commission For Women (NCW) by visiting their website at http://ncwapps.nic.in/ or calling them at 91-11-26944880 or +91-11-26944883. You can also email your complaint firstname.lastname@example.org.
- You can file a Cyber complaint with the Cyber Cell Department of the Police or at the Police station you can file an FIR stating your issue.
- Or you can file a complaint with the National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal at http://www.cybercrime.gov.in/ where there is a dedicated platform for reporting a crime against women and children.
Keep your passwords and software updated
Changing the password of the accounts on social media platforms and of your Email id can also keep you safe from getting hacked. There are unknown links often shared in messages or emails which might contain malware or viruses used to hack into your system, please refrain from clicking such links. Keeping all the software that is being used updated helps in preventing virus attacks. As you all are aware of the secrecy of passwords, great emphasis is given to it again and again because of various cyberstalk attacks by people. Not only strangers but also known people with whom you might have discussed it in the past, it can be your ex-partner or a friend. Changing passwords from time to time keeps you protected.
Restrain from keeping your private pictures in cloud services
Though cloud services like Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, iCloud, etc., are apparently secured and protected and can only be accessed if you share them with anyone, they will be available and accessible by the Company’s database. There have been instances where the cyberstalker has gained access to google drive-by by hacking into the system thereby blackmailing the victim with private pictures that were kept in Google Drive. If you want to store your private pictures it is always advisable that you store them in a folder in your Personal Computer protecting such folders with passwords.
Cyberstalking has in recent times taken a vengeful turn as more and more people who are committing the crime are already known to the victims. It can be a person staying in the neighbourhood or friend or colleague or even an ex-partner. When the cyberstalker is someone whom you do not know or a complete stranger there are a few scopes of prevention as discussed earlier. But if the cyberstalker is someone whom the victim already knew it leaves a very little window open for taking safety measures. Taking precautionary measures in the social media age is not only very tough but at times it might appear an impossible task, as cyberstalking is often combined with other offences such as cyberbullying, online harassment and sexual perpetrators are often seen taking the optimum advantage of it.
Though we all are familiar with the proverb ‘precaution is better than cure’, while in this case the line of precaution is very vague as someway or the other cyberstalkers are able to disrupt the lives of their victims and mental peace, be it in the form of sending constant messages or emails or online harassment. It is thus always recommended that everyone must have knowledge about the legal remedies that lie on hand and report such incidents. General awareness and educating everyone, especially children about the problem can only reduce the extent and vulnerability of the situation.
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