Email stalking

Email stalking

Andrew Brown for Heather O’Connor

Nigel Harris yesterday became the first convicted email stalker in British history. He had bombarded his former lover, Claire Dawson, with as many as eight messages an hour on her home computer; but he had also used voice mail, telephone calls, ordinary post, and even placed Western-style "wanted" posters on the windscreen of her car in effort to win back her affections. He even tried saying it with flowers: he threw bouquets into her back garden. But however often and variously he swore he still loved her, he wouldn’t listen to her at all until she had him arrested. He seems now to have got the message, delivered by the very old technology of burly policemen and a magistrates court.

If he’d been more imaginative, though, he could have made her life a real misery. Several American states have now passed laws against email stalking after a married author named Jayne Hitchcock started getting complete strangers ringing her up to demand sado-masochistic sex. She had clashed with a firm of sleazy publishers and shortly therafter found her name and home telephone number attached to a personal ad on one of the sleazier parts of the Internet. "Female International Author, no limits to imagination and fantasies, prefers group macho/sadistic interaction, including lovebites and indiscriminate scratches. Invites you to write or call to exchange exciting phantasies with her" said the advertisement. Her husband didn’t find it funny either.

Yet this could be done to any woman whose telephone number is known. One message on the right web site could have the same effect as posting a woman’s telephone number in a hundred phone boxes round London. It is a simple form of harassment whose perpetrator could be difficult to detect. It is almost as easy to send an anonymous email as it is to send an anonymous letter, but whereas a letter will only reach one person a single email can reach hundreds of thousands of people. Though anonymous email is mostly used to sell pornography and get-rich quick schemes at the moment it could just as easily be used to spread libels.

Nigel Harris had made a start in this direction by sending emails around the office where his lover worked after she left Cambridge, accusing her of being a schizophrenic who had been abused as a child. But he could have been much more creative and damaging. There have already been several libel suits fought over remarks made on the internet; but it is only possible to sue people whose identity is known. Anonymous libels are much harder to defend against and can be just as widely spread. .

The technique of sending anonymous email to millions of people is already widespread though it is mostly used to sell pornography. Some of this electronic junk mail, known as "spam" offers "Free credit cards; free money!" Some pretends to come from friends, and have subject lines that say "Hi, remember me?" One German site was offering pictures of Princess Diana’s death crash. All are designed to get novices clicking on pornographic web pages, which, are programmed to be almost impossible to get out of without shutting down your connection to the Internet. Another technique which has been used is to send out pornographic or paedophile spam and give your innocent victim’s name and address as the contact number, which can result in all sorts of unpleasantness, from angry phone calls to police raids.

Email stalking has never been easier or more tempting because of the growth of free Internet email services like Hotmail which make it easy to sign up for an account under a false name, use it for a few days, and then disappear. Free connections to the Internet, supplied by companies such as Dixons Freeserve, provide another angle of abuse. Since they do not demand credit card details form their users, they have no way of knowing exactly who a user is. Though they take some precautions against abuse, these can be circumvented by a determined stalker.

When email is combined with anonymity, the effects can be especially nasty. One University computer administrator said: "I have seen instances of messages posted to a victim via an anonymous e-mailer that were actually sent by someone sitting only a little distance from her in the same room. The content was particularly creepy and threatening with strong sexual overtones and it described exactly what she was wearing and what she had done only minutes before.

"Mail received in this sort of context has quite a different impact to mail sent through the post."

In the end, the police traced this stalker, with the collaboration of the University authorities, and he was arrested in front of all his classmates, charged, and thrown in the cells. The shock must have been almost as great for him as it was for his victim, because email is a uniquely intimate form of communication. These are messages that pop up on the very screen where you write, almost as if you had written them yourself. In a way a computer screen is a much more private place than the breakfast table and the shock of an unpleasant message there is even greater than it would be in the post. For anyone who spends their working days in front of a computer, email is as important socially as a telephone. This means, among other things, that sending email is as much a part of a modern love affair as using a telephone. So the shock of something unpleasant turning up where you would expect messages from family or lovers is as great as a dirty phone call and harder to guard against.

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