It’s not just men who stoop to Net harassment
It used to be that you couldn’t find a lot of women on line. It was a geeky guys’ world. These days, though, the Net-using population has almost the same gender makeup as the rest of the country. For good -- and for mischief. “We have been seeing a disturbing trend over the years. The number of female offenders has risen dramatically,” says Jayne Hitchcock of Maine, an expert in on-line harassment who is known in New Hampshire for her work in getting a cyberstalking bill passed in 1999. “In 2000, only 27 percent of our (on-line harassment) cases involved female offenders. Last year, that jumped to 38 percent.” Hitchcock bases her conclusion on data gathered by her all-volunteer group WHO@. (It’s pronounced “whoa,” although she says lots of people try “hoo-ah,” particularly if they’ve been in the military). WHO@ only accepts cases involving adults over the age of 18, since most on-line safety organizations focus on child-related cases, but that doesn’t seem to limit the organization much. Hitchcock said the group receives an average of 50 to 100 cases per week, handled by 18 volunteer advocates located throughout the United States and a couple of other countries. They counsel the victims, and most of the time find that the problem will end if they bring up the situation to the harasser’s ISP. “A lot of the advocates are former victims (of harassment), or know someone who has been stalked on line,” said Hitchcock. Hitchcock lectures on the topic for law-enforcement groups, giving them technical and user-friendly tips on spotting problems, and has written a book, “Net Crimes,” about unsavory Internet behavior. With all this expertise, why does she think more women seem to be involved in this unpleasant behavior? “I think it’s the perceived anonymity of the Internet; that’s why you’re seeing more female harassers, more male victims,” she said in a recent interview. “And it’s not just women getting back at men -- it’s women harassing women, too.” ‘Internet road rage’ Unfortunately for Hitchcock, her understanding of harassment comes from personal experience. A geek from way back -- she worked as a tech-tester for MSE Corp. in Salem, which made 5 1/2-inch disk drives, and for the now-defunct word processor firm WordStar -- Hitchcock endured a horrendous case of on-line stalking for several years after she brought attention to an apparent scam involving fake literary agents, in 1996. Mail bombs, spoofed messages, obscene postings with her address and phone number -- she faced the whole gamut of irritating, illegal and dangerous harassment. But Hitchcock and her husband unraveled e-mail headers and traced routing paths, and fought back in the courts. Eventually this led to jail time for the harassers. By then, Hitchcock was inspired. She began a nationwide trek for better laws against on-line harassment. In 1999, after moving back from Maryland to Maine, she twice came to New Hampshire to testify before the Legislature in favor of anti-cyberstalking bills, and was present when Gov. Jeanne Shaheen signed it into law. That law was prompted in part, you may recall, by the awful case of Amy Boyer of Nashua. The 20-year-old Boyer was shot and killed in 1999 by a Nashua man obsessed with her. He had created a Web site that went into detail about Boyer, as well as fantasies about Columbine-style shootings at Nashua High School, then used on-line sources to find Boyer’s work address so he could hunt her down. “That is still the worst case of stalking that I’ve seen, thankfully,” said Hitchcock. “The majority of the cases we get are usually at the beginning. Most are resolved without going to law enforcement, usually by asking the harasser to stop,” she said. Extreme cases like Boyer’s aside, the ease and anonymity of the on-line world are, Hitchcock thinks, the cause of so much “Internet road rage.” “Somebody says something on a (discussion group), somebody disagrees with you, there’s an (eBay) auction gone wrong -- and then people blow it all out of proportion. Soon they dig a hole too deep and can’t get out of it,” she said. “If they’re not ended quickly, it just really goes out of control.” Interest in the topic has only increased as the Net becomes everyday. Law enforcement is getting savvy about examining hard drives and handling hardware, but still need help in software. And the events of the past two years also have heightened the need. “Terrorists use e-mail and chat rooms, too,” she said. That includes, presumably, female terrorists. David Brooks writes about technology for the Telegraph of Nashua. This column appears monthly in New Hampshire Business Review. More information about WHO@ can be found at haltabuse.org.