Does your smart phone illuminate when you’re not using it? Does its camera light blink at random times? Do you hear background noises or clicks while on a call?
If so, your mobile device might have been compromised, and you might be the victim of one of today’s newer forms of technology-enabled stalking, according to University of Iowa Information Technology Services.
“Technology-assisted stalking, harassment and intimidation can happen to anyone,” according to the UI department.
Stalking numbers locally have been on the rise, reported the Rape Victim Advocacy Program, an Iowa City-based sexual abuse response center that serves the UI and surrounding counties. Officials credit that, in part, to all the tools today’s stalkers have at their disposal.
Instead of just writing letters, sending flowers or showing up where they're not wanted, perpetrators today can track individuals online, hack virtual passwords, use mobile applications to trace cellphones and even tap into camera phones to watch or listen to their targets.
Experts said there also has been a shift in how stalking and harassment is perceived, increasing awareness and possibly affecting report numbers. In response to the changes, the UI last year added stalking language to five policies – including its anti-harassment and violence policies.
The UI also has a stalking awareness campaign planned for this spring, with the goal of better educating people on what stalking can look like and how to avoid becoming a victim.
“It is easier (to stalk), absolutely,” said Karla Miller, RVAP executive director. “You can find out anything about people online.”
Stalking-related crisis calls to the advocacy center have jumped over the past five years, increasing from 4 calls in the 2009 budget year to 22 in the last budget year, according to RVAP’s annual statistics. When looking just at UI-related calls, numbers have risen from 1 call in 2009 to 20 last year.
The center also has seen more calls related to sexual harassment, which more often is being perpetrated online or via mobile technology, Miller said.
“People who have a propensity for abhorrent behavior like stalking will use anything they can to help carry that out,” she said. “I think it’s hard for people who are good people and don’t do this to understand just how available their information is in real time. It’s a very scary topic.”
Keeping up with the criminals
Stalking is intentional and repeated behavior that makes someone fear for his or her safety, and it’s a crime, according to the Iowa Office of the Attorney General.
But technology has made it easier for perpetrators to engage in stalking behavior because it lets them remain anonymous, Miller said.
“It’s a virtual playground for people with antisocial behavior – whether they’re stalking strangers or people they know,” she said.
Technology can be so helpful for stalkers that experts and authorities said it’s rare in today’s society to find a case that doesn’t involve social media or mobile applications.
“It’s become part and parcel of the list of behaviors that anti-social people engage in,” Miller said. “You can assume that if anyone is stalking, they are using those things.”
In some cases, cyber and mobile stalking cases are easier to prosecute because they often come with a “paper trail” that can be used as evidence. But some programs and mobile applications erase content after it’s sent – leaving victims and authorities without proof a crime occurred, said Peter Berkson, threat assessment and care specialist with the UI Department of Public Safety.
“Even police have challenges with this subject,” Berkson said. “There are evolving and new applications popping up that make it difficult for police to keep up.”
It’s not uncommon for the population he polices – the younger university crowd – to be ahead of the curve when it comes to new tools.
“But we are trying to keep abreast of the times and the information and technology out there,” he said. “And we are not afraid to say we don’t know everything about this.”
Berkson added that his department will tap the UI’s technology specialists, if necessary.
“We will use anyone who has more knowledge in that area if we are struggling,” he said.
UI police are receiving more reports of harassment and stalking cases of late, Berkson said, and he blamed that on the fact that technology “always” is involved.
“Everyone is more connected,” he said.
Experts also have seen a shift in perception around stalking of late, possible increasing report numbers, said Monique DiCarlo, UI sexual misconduct response coordinator.
“In the past, something that might have been portrayed in the media as funny now is being taken more seriously,” DiCarlo said.
In addition to its new policy language around stalking, the UI’s upcoming stalking awareness campaign will focus on bystander early intervention, with the goal of increasing “help-seeking behavior.”
“The majority of people are not going to stalk or harass someone,” DiCarlo said. “But most of us might witness something that could lead to that behavior, and we want bystanders to know what to do before a crime occurs.”
DiCarlo said the UI’s policy amendments and intervention initiatives, in part, are due to the shift in how stalking is perpetrated and perceived.
“I think it’s important to say that the technology hasn’t created the problem,” she said. “But it certainly has complicated it.”
The Rape Victim Advocacy Program, which serves four counties and the University of Iowa, takes crisis calls for a variety of concerns, including stalking. Numbers are by fiscal year.
Calls for stalking
2009 - 4
2010 - 12
2011 - 6
2012 - 9
2013 - 22
University of Iowa-related stalking calls
2009 - 1
2010 - 5
2011 - 1
2012 - 3
2013 - 20
Source: RVAP of Iowa City
For more information
Source: Iowa Office of the Attorney General