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Harassment without a face

After becoming familiar with the word bullying, a term used for describing psychological harassment among minors at school, a new neologism has appeared, i.e. cyber-bullying. Cyber-bullying applies to the use of telecommunication means – mainly mobile phones and on-line games – to psychologically harass, annoy, threat, vex, humiliate and/or bother someone in a deliberate manner. If any of the people involved – victim or attacker – were not minors, then we would use the term Cyber-harassment. In the case of an adult attempting to lure children or teenagers into sexual encounters, the authorities call it Cyber-stalking.

Cyber-bullying can manifest itself in various forms, depending on the attacker’s computer skills and imagination. One of the most common practices is the sending of compromising information through instant messages (SMS, Skype, Messenger…).

Similarly, posting offensive comments regarding the victim (or in his/her behalf) on blogs, forums and websites is another way of harassment. Cyber-bullying also involves stealing user names and passwords to e-mail accounts in order to change the latter to prevent the legitimate user to access his/her own account, or to read his/her private messages. The attacker can go further, sending messages on behalf of the victim. The same would be achieved by creating a new account using the victim’s personal information. In addition to text, the attacker can also send images through SMS or e-mail.

One can suspect that someone is being subjected to cyber-bullying when they don’t use the Internet as frequently as before, or when they “left” constantly the mobile phone at home – because they’d prefer not to have it with them.

Normally, on-line harassment doesn’t have grave consequences. Fortunately, in most cases it is a temporary phenomenon that fades away with age. However, there have been cases that ended up in suicide. As an example, there are about 38.000 Japanese websites that, in addition to having pornographic or extremely violent content, can be used by Japanese secondary/high school students to publish threats, offensive messages or compromising pictures of their classmates. Cyber-bullying became famous in the media on July 2007, when an 18 year-old boy committed suicide after his classmates posted a picture of him naked on an unofficial site of the school.

There’s not much teachers can do against cyber-bullying, since it mainly occurs outside the school facilities/hours. This is why it is necessary to educate parents about how to stop and correct these situations, so that they can teach their children basic ethical principles concerning the use of the Internet. Teaching basic rules could help in eradicating the problem, like being cautious with the personal information shared, being kind and respectful with others, not being vindictive or aggressive, defending threatened people by reporting the facts to parents and teachers, reporting abuses to e-mail , telephone, instant messaging, social network providers or any other on-line service involved in the harassment.

Due to the nature of this type of harassment, which is only apparently anonymous, gathering evidence to find the attacker wouldn’t be too difficult, since it is easy to store documents, pictures or conversations that can be later used as evidence, and also because everything we do on the Net leaves traces behind.

To find out more on the subject (Spanish):

Amaia Urtasun
S21sec e-crime

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