Will tracking digital harassment help defend against internet trolls?

September 19, 2016

Joshua Eaton, Correspondent

Almost a year after his teenage daughter's attacker was sentenced in a high-profile sexual assault case, Alexander Prout hoped his family could get back to normal.

But relief from the torment his family experienced after his daughter was assaulted at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., and during the trial for convicted attacker Owen Labrie, a former student at the elite prep school, was short lived.

Within days of the conviction, a detective from the Concord police department called to say strangers threatened the family on websites dedicated to outing sexual assault victims, and from other dark corners of the internet.

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"It was horrifying to see," said Mr. Prout, whose daughter has since identified herself publicly. "[They had] photos of all of my children, all of our specific personal information, including links to all our social media sites, family photos, photos of our home."

The Prout family may be a high-profile case, but they're hardly alone. Around 18 percent of internet users experience severe online harassment, including physical threats, harassment over a sustained time period, stalking, and sexual harassment, according to a 2014 survey by the Pew Forum.

But US law does not require federal investigators to track instances of online harassment. A bill introduced Sept. 13 by Rep. Katherine Clark (D) of Massachusetts would require the FBI to collect data on cybercrimes against individuals, and include those figures in the Uniform Crime Reports, the agency's annual repository of US crime data, and the National Incident Reporting System.

"If the FBI can provide data on murders and robberies and arson, they should also be able to collect data on the number of cyberstalkings and any other cybercrimes against an individual," Ms. Clark told Passcode.

Her office has also asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch to release data on how many times the Department of Justice prosecutes federal online stalking and abuse cases, which violate current federal law?.

Under the new law, the FBI would add "cybercrimes against individuals" – online stalking, harassment, and threats – to its main crime reporting systems. The attorney general would release an annual summary of the cybercrime data, and the Department of Justice would have to come up with a national strategy for reducing these online crimes.