Cyber-stalking is the use of digital platforms to track and harass someone. Cyberstalking has a sinister connotation. But when you meet someone from an online dating site or see someone who makes you curious and decide to look them up, is that still stalking? Recently, a Kenyan tweep known as @waithera_jk sparked the debate after she decided to find out all she could about a handsome man she saw. She searched his licence plate on the National Transport Safety Authority (NTSA) website, got his name and searched it on LinkedIn, then reached out to him. After having a conversation with him on WhatsApp, she shared her latest adventure in online data mining, initiating a discussion. When does curiosity become creepy?
Is there a difference between stalking and curiosity?
Cyber-stalking involves continued, incessant, unwanted contact with someone, causing them distress. It’s a form of digital harassment in the same family as trolling where you are bombarded with responses generated to frustrate or scare you. Cyberstalkers can be normal human beings or those who suffer from anxiety and have no capacity to have healthy relationships with others.
The majority of cyber-stalkers rely on stalking to maintain a one-sided relationship with the object of their fixation. Some cyber-stalkers become obsessed with someone, creating an imaginary relationship with their victims. While others are more menacing. People can stalk over revenge, airing grievances or other threatening behaviours. In 2019, an author admitted to cyber-stalking a book reviewer who gave her latest release a negative review.
What Waithera did was mine publicly available information to find the identity of a stranger she saw once. Cyber-stalkers can find hidden information, including the identities of vulnerable relatives who aren’t online. Waithera’s case can be classified as curiosity but it can still be considered creepy. The only thing that differentiates her from a cyber-stalker is intent, which doesn’t negate the impact.
When curiosity crosses the line
If you put yourself in the gentleman’s shoes, how would you feel if you found out that a recent connection you made was because someone decided to dig for your information? It’s a grey area. If you posted a comment on YouTube and someone found your social media account and decided to reach out through that to try their luck at a connection, is that OK? Perhaps; because social media account information is public. Using someone’s licence plate to identify a driver can feel like crossing a line but this may depend on the recipient.
When you flip genders, would a woman feel comfortable being contacted on LinkedIn after a man found her information because of her vehicle’s licence plate? In addition, why would it be necessary to post this process on social media? What Waithera did technically isn’t illegal but if it makes people uncomfortable, should anyone even try it?
Online data privacy
There’s a difference between looking someone up online to confirm they are who they say they are and trying to dig for someone’s identity to contact them for the first time. Most people don’t want to be contacted constantly by random strangers, especially when they use information you didn’t put out there for random strangers to contact you.
The Kenyan Data Protection Act states that:
Every person has the right to privacy, which includes the right not to have their person, home or property searched…information relating to their family or private affairs unnecessarily required or revealed, or the privacy of their communications infringed. It’s unclear whether NTSA violates this law. But if this information is available, it doesn’t give anyone the right to go searching for it. If someone leaves their door open, it’s not an invitation to rummage through their drawers.
It’s a few steps from making extra searches to gain the attention of a suitor and gathering information that should be private for nefarious purposes. Constantly watching someone’s account can be considered predatory behaviour. If you want to keep up with someone’s account, follow them or send them a friend request so that they can be aware of your presence. Spying on people to gather information on them is a gateway to cyber-stalking.
It’s not in your power to prevent others from being nasty online. However, you can take various steps to protect yourself.
1. Use strong passwords.
This prevents people from trying to break into your account to get even more sensitive information. Cyber-stalking doesn’t stop at trying to contact you. It can escalate to impersonation, harassment of your loved ones, or stealing from you.
2. Practice digital hygiene
Be aware of your digital footprints. Protect your accounts from strangers. If you have social media accounts where a lot of information can be accessed, like LinkedIn, change your settings such that the information isn’t visible to people who aren’t signed in. You can also privatise your accounts, use impersonal profile pictures, or use pseudonyms. You can also ensure that people can’t tag you in photos and hide your likes, and followers list so that people can’t use mutual accounts for cyber-stalking.
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3. Create roadblocks
If you’re a public figure, your account may not be able to go private. However, some social media sites prevent people who don’t follow you from contacting you. You can also limit the comments and replies to your posts. Block people who contact you with correspondence you’re not interested in. In some instances, cyber-stalkers can react poorly to rejection, and escalate their harassment. Cutting them off may be safer.
4. Always keep records
Ensure you save any cyber-stalking behaviour when you report these account holders to the platform’s security team or the authorities.
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