U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Ranking Needs for Fighting Digital Abuse: Sextortion, Swatting, Doxing, Cyberstalking and Nonconsensual Pornography

Experts put a premium on public education, more practitioner awareness, and victim empowerment for responding to technology-facilitated abuse.
Date Published
November 20, 2020

Evolving forms of digital abuse can devastate victims. Walls of anonymity too often shield and embolden those who perpetrate the crime, compounding the damage and keeping justice at bay.

Sextortion, swatting, doxing, cyberstalking, and nonconsensual pornography, all recent entries in the crime glossary, represent a new world of challenges for law enforcement, the courts, and victims. So far, the criminal justice system has struggled to detect and react to these electronic forms of crime, procure and present the digital evidence needed to prosecute them, and identify and support victims.

Next-generation cybercrimes can inflict profound and lasting harm on their victims, as these terms and their definitions suggest:

  • Sextortion — Cyber extortion is an online attack on victim systems, for example through ransomware, in which a person or a group of people demand sexual images, sexual favors, or other things of value In exchange for stopping the attack.
  • Nonconsensual pornography — Distribution of nude or sexually explicit images or videos of an individual without consent.
  • Cyberstalking — Repeated use of electronic communications to stalk a person or group.
  • Doxing — Public release of private and sensitive personal identifying information about an individual without their consent. (The word “doxing” is derived from “documents.”)
  • Swatting — False report of an emergency to trigger an emergency response, specifically deployment of a SWAT team, to a location where no emergency exists.

A diverse expert panel, convened as part of NIJ’s Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative, has identified top needs for fighting technology-facilitated abuse.[1] The panel, supported by the RAND Corporation (RAND) and RTI International (RTI), ranked needs by a blended weighting of the relative importance of each challenge and the probability of achieving an associated solution.  

The expert panel identified priority research, policy, and practice needs to:

  • Educate the public on technology-facilitated abuse.
  • Raise awareness about technology-facilitated abuse in the criminal justice community.
  • Improve criminal justice practices and policies.
  • Mitigate harm caused by technology-facilitated abuse while empowering victims.[2]

Among the highest priority needs the NIJ-sponsored panel identified were:

  • Public education — A need for education of children and parents about consent, and about the risks and consequences of sharing information online.
  • Awareness among criminal justice practitioners — A need for ways to incentivize law enforcement and prosecutors to prioritize technology-facilitated abuse cases.
  • Improving practices and policies — A need for specialized training for interviewing victims in delicate or traumatic situations.
  • Mitigating harm and empowering victims — A need to evaluate the harm of technology-facilitated abuses and the effectiveness of remedies. Also, a need for law enforcement, crisis response providers, and lawyers to coordinate in recognizing and responding to technology-facilitated abuse victims’ interests.

Purpose

RTI and RAND researchers organized the work of the expert group composed of cybersecurity and cybercrime experts from law enforcement, academia, the courts, legal organizations, justice agencies, and a foundation.

Tasked with identifying critical technology-facilitated abuse issues and prioritizing related research and technology needs, the expert panel held discussions on:

  • Efforts to understand the scope of technology-facilitated abuse and when it should be classified as criminal conduct.
  • Law enforcement identification of and response to technology-facilitated abuse, including investigations of that abuse and needs related to those investigations.
  • Technology-facilitated abuse case processing, in terms of referral for prosecution, presentation of digital evidence, and offender sentencing.

Nature and Scope of Technology-Facilitated Abuse

To a large degree, the public and criminal justice agencies lack awareness of technology-facilitated abuse and its consequences, which can be devastating, the panel’s report said. Even victims often lack awareness of harm done to them. Moreover, technology-facilitated abuse cases can be difficult to investigate and to prosecute, due to their largely anonymous nature and the fact that laws have not kept up with offenses.

Major social media platforms have adopted policies to help curb abusive practices. But privacy and free speech concerns have limited collaboration between law enforcement and online entities, the report noted.

Technology-facilitated abuse is a growing social malady. Studies indicate that between 18% and 37% of American adults have experienced severe harassment online.[3] Researchers have reported that 7% of American adults have had explicit images of themselves posted online without their consent,[4] and 5% of middle and high schoolers reported they were victims of sextortion.[5]

Harm from technology-facilitated abuse extends beyond the digital realm. Research has found that technology-facilitated abuse is a common tactic in perpetration of stalking and interpersonal violence.[6]

Much remains to be learned about the effects on victims from technology-facilitated abuse offenses, but we know it can have a crushing impact on victims’ lives. The report said: “Technology-facilitated abuse can have severe and long-lasting impacts on victims that extend far beyond the digital realm. Studies have found that victims of technology-facilitated abuse experience symptoms of serious psychological distress, including feelings of isolation, guilt, anger, and worthlessness.”

A 2015 FBI report said the victims in 28% of 43 analyzed sextortion cases attempted or died by suicide.[7]

Identification of Top-Tier Needs to Address Technology-Facilitated Abuse

In the end, the technology-facilitated abuse expert panel identified 21 top-tier, or highest priority, needs. For each need, the researchers’ priority ranking process took into account both the significance of the problem and the probability of success in addressing it. The 21 highest priority needs are discussed below in separate sections, under four project themes:

  1. Public education and prevention efforts
  2. Awareness among criminal justice practitioners
  3. Improving criminal justice practices and polices  
  4. Mitigating harm and empowering victims

Public Education

Developing language and terminology to describe technology-facilitated abuse was a first step for the panel. The panel concluded that a taxonomy of relevant behaviors would facilitate research, raise public awareness of technology-facilitated abuse offenses, and improve the criminal justice system’s response. Participants agreed to a need for a factual foundation on specific types of technology-facilitated abuse offenses and their prevalence.

They emphasized a shortage of data on doxing and swatting, including doxing’s full costs to victims and harm caused by swatting, in terms of both wasted resources and the desensitizing effect of false alarms on SWAT team members.

Problem or Opportunity

Associated Need

Quantifying cost It is difficult to quantify the cost of swatting and doxing.

  • Research the cost of emergency response to swatting.
  • Research costs related to doxing.

Consent and consequences There is a lack of education about consent and about the consequences of sharing information.

  • Develop and disseminate basic education for children and parents about consent and consequences of sharing information online.

Engaging the public and stakeholders — It is difficult to get the public and stakeholders to care about and respond to technology-facilitated abuse.

  • Conduct a survey to collect data on technology-facilitated abuse knowledge, victim response, effects on victims, and secondary harm.

Lack of common definitions A lack of common terms limits the criminal justice system’s response, and victims’ ability to report technology-facilitated abuse.

  • Develop a conceptual framework or taxonomy for definitions that justice practitioners can adopt.

 

Awareness Among Criminal Justice Practitioners

The panel observed that technology-facilitated abuse offenses are often charged under related laws not specific to those offenses. Participants urged that laws directly targeting technology-facilitated abuse would better support law enforcement and prosecutors and spotlight the seriousness of the crime.

Another benefit of laws specific to technology-facilitated abuse offenses is their potential deterrent effect on the often impulsive actions of technology-facilitated abuse offenders. The report explained:

Digital anonymity and the dehumanizing effect of technology can give rise to impulsive and harmful behaviors and can impart a sense of impunity on those who commit the crime. Participants noted that having criminal technology-facilitated abuse statutes is essential to curb such impulsivity on the part of those who might consider perpetrating the crime and deter their behavior.

Problem or Opportunity

Associated Need

Priorities Law enforcement might not prioritize technology-facilitated abuse cases.

  • Identify approaches to incentivizing law enforcement and prosecutors to prioritize technology-facilitated abuse cases.
  • Develop technology-facilitated abuse training materials for law enforcement.

Judges’ knowledge There is a lack of judicial knowledge about technology and the vulnerability of victims of technology-facilitated abuse.

  • Conduct research on victim vulnerability.

Perpetrator differences — Differences affect their ability to be deterred.

  • Conduct research on the deterrents that could work for different types of perpetrators.

 

Improving Practices and Policies

The panel reported that law enforcement is challenged by the lack of resources and training needed to address digital evidence needs. Practitioner training is needed for:

  • Conducting victim interviews in a sensitive manner.
  • Keeping victims engaged and informed throughout the case.
  • Building trust with victims to ensure they are comfortable turning over materials, often including personal cellphones and computers.

Particular challenges pointed out by the panel are processing overwhelming volumes of digital data as case evidence and dealing with anonymizing tools that can make it “exponentially more difficult” to identify offenders, in the words of a panel expert.  For a detailed discussion on the challenges presented by digital evidence, see Digital Evidence and the U.S. Criminal Justice System: Identifying Technology and Other Needs to More Effectively Acquire and Utilize Digital Evidence.

Another point of emphasis was a need for changes to sentencing guidelines for technology-facilitated abuse crimes.

Problem or Opportunity

Associated Need

Staffing — There are insufficient staff trained to identify and process digital evidence.

  • Require basic training on digital evidence among first responders.
  • Disseminate training materials and develop accreditation standards.

Data overload The high volume of data on technology-facilitated abuse can overwhelm criminal justice practitioners.

  • Build investigative teams for technology-facilitated abuse.

Funding There is a lack of funding for technology-facilitated abuse identification and response.

  • Dedicate resources for technology-facilitated abuse investigations.

Judges’ knowledge Lack of knowledge can be a barrier to resolving cases.

  • Propose model amendments to sentencing guidelines.

 

Mitigating Harm and Empowering Victims

When mitigating the damage from technology-facilitated abuse means removing unwanted material from the internet, the panel said, time is of the essence. One participant said that if material is not removed within 48 hours of posting, it will likely never come down. Panelists suggested social media platforms could assist technology-facilitated abuse victims by quickly detecting posted abuse materials.

Panel experts observed that a tension can exist between a victim’s interest in removing unwanted materials from the web as soon as possible and the need to preserve evidence. One panelist said, “You really have to talk to victims, because they’re often trying to get this content taken down. The minute it comes down, it’s more difficult [to build a case against a perpetrator]” (bracketed language in panel report).

Problem or Opportunity

Associated Need

Irreparable harm Technology-facilitated abuse can cause significant, irreparable, and persistent harm to the victim. Law enforcement might not prioritize technology-facilitated abuse cases.

  • Identify approaches to incentivizing law enforcement and prosecutors to prioritize technology-facilitated abuse cases.
  • Develop training materials on technology-facilitated abuse for law enforcement.

Victim reluctance Victims resist coming forward.

  • Promote coordination among law enforcement, crisis service providers, and lawyers about what victims want as well as their fears and experience.

Legal remedies Remedies and penalties are inadequate for addressing harms.

  • Conduct research on the deterrents that could work for different types of perpetrators.
  • Reassess whether remedies and penalties are tailored to deterrence and harm mitigation.

 

About This Article

The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2018-75-CX- K006, awarded to the RAND Corporation as part of the Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative (PCJNI). PCJNI is a project of RAND, RTI International, the Police Executive Research Forum, and the University of Denver, under direction of the National Institute of Justice. This article is based on the grantee report Countering Technology-Facilitated Abuse: Criminal Justice Strategies for Combating Nonconsensual Pornography, Sextortion, Doxing and Swatting

Date Created: November 20, 2020