Victims Of Online Threats Say Perpetrators Aren't Being Caught : All Tech Considered Women who turn to law enforcement for help are often frustrated that authorities aren't doing enough. Police say tracing the culprits can be a complicated and time-consuming process.
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Victims Of Online Threats Say Perpetrators Aren't Being Caught

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Victims Of Online Threats Say Perpetrators Aren't Being Caught

Victims Of Online Threats Say Perpetrators Aren't Being Caught

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's illegal to threaten someone online, but that hasn't protected people from being targeted on the Internet. In recent weeks there have been a number of high-profile threats. Among the targets were several feminist videogame critics. Since threats are often made anonymously, they can be difficult to track. NPR's Laura Sydell reports that victims of online harassment are frustrated that the perpetrators aren't being caught.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Rebecca Watson says she's had many threats against her over Twitter, email and on her website, Skepchik. The site focuses on feminism and science. She ignores most of the threats. But once in a while, they truly scare her. Someone sent Watson a link to a man's website...

REBECCA WATSON: ...Where he was making music, and the album was a picture of me, my face with a target on it. And the name of the album was "I Have A Tombstone With Rebecca Watson's Name On It."

SYDELL: Watson says he was also threatening her on Twitter, so she went to police.

WATSON: They told me that they could make a report. That's all they could do. And that if something were to happen to me one day then they would have this report to look at and know who did it.

SYDELL: Watson was frightened. She hired a private detective who was able to trace the man to a town in Texas where there was a domestic violence charge against him.

WATSON: I called the FBI because he was in another state.

SYDELL: Initially, Watson got a response.

WATSON: We went back and forth a few times with the agent in charge promising to do something about it. She never did.

SYDELL: The last contact with the FBI happened about a year ago when Watson was scheduled to give a public talk in Texas only an hour from where the man lived.

WATSON: So I contacted the FBI agent and asked her what I should do. And she said basically that I should do whatever I thought would make me feel safe which, as you might be able to guess, did not make me feel safe.

SYDELL: Watson hired her own private security guard. The FBI was unable to respond in time for this story. The response Watson got is a little too common, says Danielle Citron, a professor of law at the University of Maryland who has studied online harassment. Citron says there are plenty of laws on the books that criminalize threatening someone online.

DANIELLE CITRON: The response is often that law enforcement doesn't get the law right. So, they say oh, it's a civil matter, you know, just turn your computer off, ignore it. Or they just are intimidated by the technology and really don't want to cop to not knowing how it is they're going to trace posters.

SYDELL: But of course tracing posters isn't simple. It's not like tracking down an ex-boyfriend who's made physical threats. And the language must be a clear threat or law enforcement can run up against First Amendment issues.

Frederick Ryan is the police chief of Arlington, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. He says investigating online threats is time-consuming and complicated. And he admits it can frustrate law enforcement.

FREDERICK RYAN: Oftentimes, an agency who has a criminal threat and have met with some challenge along the investigative process and the subpoenaing of information, it's enough of a hurdle to inhibit further investigative activity.

SYDELL: Ryan's office is in the middle of a high-profile investigation into the online harassment of Brianna Wu, a game developer. Wu's been in the news because her life was threatened after she posted comments about sexism in video games. It's part of an ongoing online battle that's been dubbed Gamergate. Ryan says they're working to catch the people who've threaten her, but it's a long process that involves getting a subpoena from a judge.

RYAN: Before we even get subpoena out to the social media company, it might be 10 days or two weeks. And then once they receive it, and it goes through their legal process, there's another 10 days or two more weeks. So, before you even have an IP address, you could be a month or six weeks into an investigation.

SYDELL: It's frustrating for a victim like Brianna Wu, who has actually left her home because of very specific threats.

BRIANNA WU: They told me to call them anytime day or night if I felt unsafe and they would send patrol cars by. But as far as reacting to the specific death threats, you know, I keep sending them to them, and it's been a month.

SYDELL: Last week, Wu put up $11,000 as a reward for information leading to the identification of a perpetrator. Since then, the threats have nearly stopped. Wu thinks the proliferation of online threats and harassment will continue unless people think there are consequences and the real likelihood of getting caught. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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