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Research Questions

  1. How many federal prosecutions have there been since the update to the cyberstalking statute took effect in 2013?
  2. What are the most common or contrasting characteristics of these cases (e.g., the characteristics of the victim, the crimes, the evidence, the approach to prosecution, the defenses offered by the perpetrator, the rulings by the court)?
  3. What are the main challenges that individuals who work within the criminal justice system face when investigating and prosecuting these cases?

Social media and other sophisticated communications technology have enabled a new kind of crime: cyberstalking. Cyberstalking involves using communications technology in threatening ways to stalk, harass, or share embarrassing information about victims, and it often involves the threat of intimate partner violence. As online platforms and messaging technologies have multiplied, cyberstalking has become more prevalent. Yet the problem has been understudied, and its dynamics are not well known.

In this report, the authors enhance the understanding of cyberstalking by offering the first empirical analysis on federal cyberstalking cases: In particular, they analyze the number of federal cyberstalking cases filed over time, the characteristics of these cases, and the outcomes of these cases. The results of in-depth interviews with prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and victims' advocacy representatives are also presented.

Key Findings

  • The number of federally prosecuted cyberstalking cases has grown steadily since 2014, reaching a peak of 80 cases filed in 2019 (then falling slightly in 2020), with 412 total cases filed between 2010 and 2020.
  • In the majority of federally prosecuted cyberstalking cases, the victim knew the offender.
  • The legal system is underprepared to handle cyberstalking cases: Law enforcement is seldom able to prioritize or allot substantial resources to cyberstalking, and many agents and officers lack training in how to investigate the crime or help victims.
  • A major challenge in prosecuting cyberstalking cases involves tying the digital evidence to the offending individual or group because tech-savvy offenders can be sophisticated at hiding digital tracks.

Recommendations

  • Update awareness campaigns regarding online safety beyond antiquated notions of "stranger danger," and develop better warnings and indicators of potentially harmful online activities.
  • Clarify cyberstalking legal statutes by removing the "intent to harm" clause from the federal cyberstalking law because it unintentionally protects some harmful behaviors.
  • Recognize the complicated nature of working with victims and promote ways of improving trust between victims and the criminal justice system.
  • Increase resources and information on emerging technology and investigative strategies available to law enforcement.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice and conducted in the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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