Aren’t we just making it too easy for online followers to become real-life trackers with the amount of open data we are posting online?
First off, what is cyberstalking? Put simply, this online version of stalking involves the repeated use of technology to intimidate or harass another person. While we often associate the problem with celebrities, anybody can be a victim.
Indeed, cyberstalking has never been so widespread and it’s increasingly easy for stalkers to watch, analyze and even physically follow their victims. In extreme cases, we have seen murders as a result after what started out as a simple “follow” on social media.
If you have watched “You” on Netflix, then you may have had a jaw-dropping awakening to the worrying state of how stalkers target and groom their unfortunate victims in this digital age. Unfortunately, the internet can offer up a plethora of means that make up a stalker’s toolkit to collect and store a damaging amount of information. The trick is knowing how to protect yourself from possible tracking and online stalking.
How stalkers use technology to find victims
I recently asked my friends on Facebook if anyone would be willing to share with me their own personal stories of cyberstalking so I could learn how these prowlers operate and therefore help reduce this risk for others. If there is one word that sums up how I felt when I was exposed to the many separate stalking incidents from some of my female friends, that word would be “chilling”.
The first message that flew into my inbox was from a friend who had been to a children’s farm one day with her daughter. They had spent the day petting the animals and admits she took lots of photos, including selfies, of their time there and posted them on Instagram, whilst innocently tagging the farm to show where she was. Without knowing at the time, someone else was there watching her take these photos and searching for them through all public photos tagged with the farm on Instagram. A few days later, this male began to follow her account on social media. He made a few general likes and comments on her photos, which she thought was sweet, and they started chatting. A couple of weeks later after some private messaging whilst realizing they were into the same things, they soon met up and she was surprised by “how much more they had in common”. In fact, it was going “too well” when he mentioned that he was glad he had noticed her at the farm a few weeks back. He hadn’t mentioned this up until this point, so she immediately felt vulnerable and made her excuses to leave.
To think that someone can notice you somewhere and all it takes is to geotag yourself and anyone can then potentially contact you. It just goes to show that we need to keep our accounts private or at the very least, private if we are going to “check in” in real time.
In my Facebook post, I also asked my friends if they open their location in real time to their friends or partners, as I had recently read that many young people allow all their friends to see where they are constantly. This filled me with so many questions, so I wanted to know why anyone would want to do this and if they are aware of the risks posed. For the record, my wife and I can view each other at any time on Find My Friends, but no one else is able to see our exact locations.
One friend who is 28 told me that anyone can see where she is. If you are in her contacts, you can simply request to follow her to see where she is whenever – and she said she hasn’t denied anyone yet! So, for instance, you could see when she is at work, the gym, or even at home. This scares the living daylights out of me: how much private data are young people willing to share with anyone?
Previously, when I worked in the Digital Forensics Unit for the police, I witnessed the extent stalkers were willing to go to when harassing a victim. I was able to view searches, including the data they were able to collect on victims, which was not only scary but, in some cases, deadly.
Stalking, from online to offline
Stalking has become far too easy. The profile data that strangers can ascertain after crawling the web is huge, but many do not see it posing any risk. However, all it takes is one creepy person to become infatuated with you and they can potentially worm their way into your life.
But what if you keep your profile locked down and don’t allow anyone you don’t know into your digital life? Well, that does sound like a lot more secure way to be, but what about the ex-partners turned stalkers (people who become obsessed with their ex-partners)? After watching “You” on Netflix I realized how easy it is for a stalker to spy on someone’s life if they are, or have once been, in the stalkee’s circle of trust. Such stalkers may know shared passwords, shared phone codes or even have once had access to victims’ phones to plant tracking apps without their knowledge. At this juncture, it may be a worthy note to check all your current apps and delete any you are unfamiliar with. At the very least, it will clean up your phone.
Many people happily share such passwords and even fingerprints to gain access to their spouse’s phones and other accounts without thinking twice, but what if this access doesn’t get revoked and they go one step further and read messages or check tracking information post-relationship? A whole heap of “what if” questions come to mind, but I feel that so many people just shrug their shoulders in a way that can be only best described with this emoticon ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
As we move further into an era of smarter devices and security being everyone’s responsibility, we need to realize the potential of leaking data ourselves and tighten up where we can. Making our accounts private is a must and it is worth regularly reviewing your contacts and removing those with whom you no longer want to interact. Check for tracking apps on your phone and if you believe you are being tracked, stalked or in any way monitored, do not delay, contact the law enforcement immediately.