Cyberstalking is basically a state-of-the-art extension of the physical form of stalking. Cyberstalkers use electronic mediums such as the Internet and emails to pursue, harass, or contact another in an unsolicited fashion. They target victims using every technology at their disposal — online forums, bulletin boards, instant messengers, chat rooms, spyware, and spam.

Rarely does cyberstalking lead to stalking’s traditional, corporal form, since the Internet puts physical distance (and anonymity) between the victim and perpetrator. Rather, some of the most common forms of harassment include unsolicited, threatening, obscene, or hate-filled email. Cyberstalkers might also post information intended to start malicious rumors or to incite others to actual crimes against their victims.

Currently, few federal laws deal directly with traditional stalking, and authorities have yet to create federal laws specific to the emerging online variety. Senate Bill 2991 would amend Title 18 of the United States Code to expand the prohibition on stalking. It was introduced as the “Just Punishment for Cyberstalkers Act of 2000.” The bill got as far as committee, but was ultimately stalled as its sponsor left the Senate. US Code prohibitions on stalking are mostly concerned with stalking as it relates to domestic violence and interstate stalking (Title 18, §2261A).

Lacking strong federal laws, misconduct is most likely to be charged using the statutes that exist in the respective jurisdiction, whether investigated by local or federal authorities. Only a handful of states lack some form of anti-stalking law. California was the first to adopt such a law in 1990, as the result of the murder of an actress by an obsessed fan the previous year.

Compounding the difficulties that arise from the lack of a federal law specific to cyberstalking, existing federal statutes can actually limit law enforcement’s ability to track down stalkers. For example, the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984prohibits the disclosure of subscriber records to law enforcement agencies without a court order and advance notice to the subscriber.

As cyberstalking and other high tech crimes become more prevalent in our wired society, look for new legislation to address the evolving challenges to authorities.

For the FBI’s report on cyberstalking, click here.