Social media companies accused over cyberstalking

Social media companies have been accused of failing to protect victims of stalking after an investigation  revealed that reports of the offence have tripled in Scotland in the past five years.

Companies such as Google have been criticised by experts who believe that they have shown little interest in helping to convict cyberstalkers who use their websites to target victims.

Statistics published in The Times yesterday revealed that complaints about stalking offences in Scotland had trebled in five years. Victim support groups described the issue as a “significant problem”.

Police Scotland received a record number of complaints about stalking last year, with 1,413 incidents, up from 443 in 2011. Since 2010, when a new law was implemented in Scotland making stalking a stand-alone crime, the force has dealt with more than 5,000 complaints.

Online stalking, which plays a part in a third of all cases, was said to be a major factor in perpetrators gaining access to their victims’ personal information. High-profile cases involving Scots include the singer Nina Nesbitt, who revealed in April that she had been subjected to threatening social media messages, and the author Janice Galloway, who was targeted via the LinkedIn website.

Industry figures have called for social media companies to make it easier for users to report incidents of stalking through their websites. Giving victims the ability to flag a series of security breaches by a stalker in one complaint, rather than having to report individual violations of privacy, was also raised as a suggested improvement.

Jane Monckton-Smith, a criminologist whose work focuses on murders committed by stalkers, said that victims were “not being protected at all” by some sites.

They have some of the best IT people working for them. It would be relatively simple for them to put in some of these safeguards

“There has been a massive boom in social media and I am not really sure anyone knows how to deal with it,” she added. “These companies are incredibly unhelpful. It is a very young industry and there are a lot of young people in it. I think there is an ethos of no censorship and in an industry so young and finding its feet these companies are having difficulties with those moral questions.”

“There is just not enough pressure being put on them. They never do anything unless there is some benefit in it for them. They are just looking at [the problem] and thinking ‘our customers think we are checking up on them’.

“They have some of the best IT people working for them. It would be relatively simple for them to put in some of these safeguards.”

Jennifer Perry, chief executive of Digital Trust, a charity supporting victims of online abuse, said that many brands “did not really want to get involved” with cases of cyber stalking.

She cited companies that share users’ details across multiple platforms, such as Facebook, which acquired the world’s most popular messaging service, WhatsApp, in 2014, as ways that personal information can “leak”.

WhatsApp faced criticism this week after reports surfaced that its users cannot opt out of some of their personal details being shared with Facebook.

Two weeks ago the video platform YouTube was also criticised after it emerged that videos at the centre of the prosecution case against Anjem Choudary, the hate preacher, could still be viewed online.

Ms Perry told The Times: “It is quite easy for perpetrators of cyberstalking to evade identification. There are tools that are easy to get hold of that allow people to disguise their IP address, but social media companies do not actively help the police as much as they could. Companies like Google absolutely refuse to help the police. You have to get a court order. If you look at the court orders police put in for requests of data, the number is in the low hundreds. They make you jump through hoops and it is very costly and so they do not really want to get involved in the criminal aspect of what is happening.”

Karen Renaud, from the University of Glasgow, claimed that Facebook had taken away precautionary security measures to protect individuals from being contacted by users with harmful intentions.

“I think [Facebook] does enough for child protection but it is so easy to create fake accounts,” she added. “You just need an email address. Anyone can get a new email address, you provide a fake birth date and you are in.

A spokesman for Google said: “We take online abuse extremely seriously and have policies in place to prevent it on our platforms.”

The Times contacted Facebook but received no response.
Stalked on social media
Janice Galloway
A concert pianist accused of stalking the Scottish author Janice Galloway, right, was acquitted on the ground of insanity at Hamilton sheriff court last year.

Graeme McNaught, then 55, was accused of sending Saltcoats-born Ms Galloway, 60, unwanted friendship requests on the social media site LinkedIn, as well as making nuisance calls.


Nina Nesbitt

In April the singer Nina Nesbitt revealed that a number of individuals had contacted her with threatening messages on social media websites.

Ms Nesbitt, 22, who is from Edinburgh, spoke of a “small number of people saying they’re waiting for me round the corner or they’re watching me”.
Lily Allen
A man from Perth appeared in court in June accused of stalking the singer Lily Allen.

Alex Grey, 31, was banned from entering two London boroughs and sentenced to an indefinite treatment to protect himself and the public after breaking into Ms Allen’s home in 2015.

Ms Allen said that she had previously been “incredibly disturbed and upset” by his letters and his attempts to contact her via social media.

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