Saturday, March 21, 2009

Cyberstalking is Real, so is Cyberbullying; Awareness & Education that Actually Reaches Youth is Vital

An army contractor who worked on a U.S. military base in Iraq hacked into the computers of teenage girls to harass and extort sexually explicit images from them, authorities allege. Police say he and an accomplice targeted some 4,000 young women around the world, including six Florida teens -- one of whom he cyberstalked for years, beginning when she was 14, and showed up at her work place. Wired, 3-19-09

Cyberstalking is Real, so is Cyberbullying; Awareness & Education that Actually Reaches Youth is Vital

Nine years ago, I was asked to fly to New York City to deliver a briefing on personal cyber security threats at a dinner for some C-level executives at the 21 Club.

I had not given much thought to the problem at that point, and so on the flight across country, I set my mind to conjuring a list of the nastiness that could plausibly be perpetrated on-line, directly and personally, using known exploits, freely available resources, etc.

By the time the wheels hit the runway, I had a compelling list:

Identity theft
Financial fraud
Cyber vandalism
Cyber stalking
Cyber voyeurism
Recon for physical theft
Recon for physical violence
Character assassination
Intel gathering for blackmail
Intel gathering for social engineering attacks

When I got into my hotel room, I did some research and verified at least one or two open source stories for each of these evil deeds.

In the years since, I have tracked the personal cyber security story line along with the two other story lines I was already following, i.e., the cyber security of government and business.

As this recent cyberstalking news item illustrates, such personal threats are real:

A victim in Florida told investigators that in 2002 when she was 14, she began chatting online with someone who identified himself as Patrick Connolly. ... After they'd been in touch a while, Connolly allegedly demanded that she send him sexual videos of herself. When she refused, he sent suggestive photos of her to her boyfriend. In 2004, she told investigators, he popped up in Florida at her job and said he wanted to take her to Universal Studios. She refused and he left but continued to harass her online. When she tried to end contact, Connolly allegedly threatened to send some of the explicit videos she'd given him to her grandmother. The harassment stopped for a while, but in January of this year, someone contacted her through a Facebook account and demanded more images of her under threat that he'd post the ones she'd previously sent him online. Wired, 3-19-09

Of course, there is also the phenomena of "cyberbullying," as the tragic story of Megan Meier highlighted.

I do not have patience for those who downplay such stories and prattle on about statistical insignificance. The statistics really don't matter, at least they shouldn't matter to the parent of a child or a young women who has been targeted by a cyberstalker or persecuted by a cyberbully. Even if instances are rare (and they are not so rare), if that instance involved someone you loved, you would not go easy on yourself if you had not done all you could to prepare them for life in cyberspace.

Cyberstalking and cyberbullying should be factored into awareness and education programs oriented toward children and their parents, and these awareness and education programs should be better funded.

MySecureCyberspace is a worthy example of a such a program. An online resource from Carnegie Mellon University, which evolved out of the shared space of CyLab and INI, MySecureCyberspace provides some excellent resources on cyberbullying, as well as many other vital security and privacy issues for children and families. It provides news and tips geared toward general populace, and features a game called Carnegie Cyber Academy

If your organization hasn't already integrated MySecureCyberspace and Carnegie Cyber Academy into your awareness and education program in some way, you should seriously consider it.

-- Richard Power