The cliché portrayal of stalkers as a man in black coat who follows a woman in dark alleys on a rainy night has changed over the years. Stalking is not restricted to unwanted following but also includes repeated phone calls or sending unwarranted letters. With the technological advancements the crime of stalking has assumed multiple new forms and dimensions in the form of cyber stalking. It is characterized by repeated victimization. Almost all the developed nations have directly or indirectly criminalized this offence. The definition of cyber stalking was aptly given in the case of State (Cyber Cell) v Yogesh Pandurang Prabhu:
"Cyber stalking is a crime in which the attacker harasses a victim using electronic communication, such as e-mail or instant messaging (IM), or messages posted to a Web site or a discussion group. A cyber stalker relies upon the anonymity afforded by the Internet to allow them to stalk their victim without being detected."
There are multiple factors which amount to stalking like Jealousy or hatred arising out of broken relationships, obsession or attraction, Erotomania (where a person believes that the victim is in love with him and is sexually inclined) and FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). A surge in the offence of stalking has been seen in the country from 6,266 reported cases in 2015 to 8,415 in 2017. More than 75% of the women are victims of cyber stalking but the data is insufficient as most of the cases go unreported.
Stalking is criminalized under the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2013 to the IPC introduced section 354D which deals with stalking. It specifies that a man who follows a woman or contacts her or attempts to do so even on clear indication that she is not interested in making such acquaintance amounts to stalking. The ambit of this section also extends to online stalking over the internet or any other form of electronic communication. Section 507 of the code indirectly addresses the issue of stalking as it reads criminal intimidation by anonymous means. This can put to use when the stalker wishes to remain anonymous and threaten the victim by cloaking his identity. Section 509 aims at punishing the person who insults the modesty of a woman by words or gestures. He can be held liable if he violates a woman's privacy by persistently sending her offensive messages or mails on social media platforms.
Though the Information Technology Act, 2000 lacks a clear framework in this regard. Section 67 of the IT Act, 2000 deals with publication of obscene content in electronic forms. If the perpetrator publishes anything disparaging about the victim, then he shall be liable under this section. Section 67A deals with the transmission of 'sexually explicit' content. In a situation where the stalker tries to publish any content explicitly of sexual nature, then he can be held liable. The offence of stalking can also be subsumed under section 66E of the IT Act which primarily deals with voyeurism. In order to instil fear in the mind of the victim the stalker might try to find out victim's private pictures posted on social media accounts and misuse them. Section 66A which was struck down by the court in the landmark judgement of Shreya Singhal v Union of India on the grounds of vagueness and chilling effect doctrine could have been effective in dealing with issues of stalking. It specifically dealt with the punishment for sending offensive messages through communication.
Manish Kathuria v Ritu Kohli was the first case of cyber stalking in India which was reported. The accused Manish Kathuria was stalking a lady named Ritu Kohli. He used her identity to send obscene messages to people. He even distributed her contact and address to people. She started receiving obnoxious messages from people. He was booked under section 509 of IPC. Since then, the country has witnessed innumerable cases relating to cyber stalking and there seems no end to it
In USA, the offence of stalking has been dealt within The Federal Statute of the United States of America (USA), Title 18, United States Code (U.S.C) section 2261-A subsection 1. Under sub-section 2 of the same statute the offence of cyber stalking has also been mentioned. An amendment was made in the year 2006 in the Federal Telephone Harassment Statute, 1934 where the definition of telecommunication was expanded to include any device or software which operates by the means of internet. No specific legislation in the UK deals with the issue of cyber stalking. The issue has been addressed through a combination of laws including: The protection from Harassment Act,1997, the Malicious Communications Act, 1988, the computer misuse act,1990 etc
Stalking directly encroaches upon privacy which according to Justice K.S. Puttaswamy and Anr. vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors. is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Apart from creating fear, it also results in lack of social interaction. It leads to unwanted behavioural and psychological changes, stress and trauma. Multifactor Authentication is one way of reducing the risk of stalking. It is a method of authentication requiring two or more factors to login into a particular account rather than a simple username and password. Data leakage protection software can be installed and updated to safeguard the data. The GPS location tag should be avoided while posting a picture as it may help the online stalker to trace a person physically.
Though these measures are of preventive nature, in case a person is stalked the best method to avoid further damage is to speak up and address the problem. One should resort to complaints in the cyber cell or online redressal mechanisms. The websites are dutybound to take down the reported content within 24 hours as per rule 2(b) of part II of the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. The victims can also resort to reporting to CERT-IN (Indian Computer Emergency Response Team) which is a designated nodal agency specified under Section 70B of the IT Act. The victim can also lodge a complaint on the website of National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal. Silence of the victim puts the perpetrator in an advantageous position which may lead to further repercussions. But now the time has come that a specific section related with cyber stalking should be added via amendment to the IT Act, 2000 to safeguard women who are mostly the soft targets.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.