The Surveillance Implications of Efforts to Combat Cyber Harassment

Privacy and Security, Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing and Media and Content

Article Snapshot


Danielle Citron and Liz Clark Rinehart


The Cambridge Handbook of Surveillance Law, David Gray and Stephen E. Henderson, eds., Cambridge University Press, pp. 291-307, 2017


Surveillance helps stop cyber harassment, the abuse of victims online. Police use technology to record evidence posted on social media or to identify anonymous perpetrators. However, surveillance can be intrusive.

Policy Relevance

Policymakers should balance harm to victims of harassment against risk of government overreach.

Main Points

  • Cyber harassment occurs when a harasser repeatedly sends electronic messages targeting a specific individual, often involving threats of physical harm, defamatory lies, or the posting of nude images without the victim’s consent.
  • Surveillance is necessary to investigate and prosecute cyber harassers; for example, to identify an abuser, police might need to record the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses associated with the harassment, and show a link between the IP address and a named defendant.
  • Usually, most evidence of cyber harassment may be found in public posts and messages sent to the victim; using this evidence does not require extensive surveillance, a warrant, or the aggregation of large amounts of data.
  • Indiscriminate surveillance merely substitutes a government actor for the harasser and is not a good solution; policymakers should strike a balance between the need to prevent cyber harassment and the need to protect the privacy of all Internet users.
  • Methods of surveillance useful against cyber harassment include monitoring social media, tracking cookies, and issuing subpoenas to online service providers for lists of the IP addresses using a web site at a given time.
  • When a site becomes notorious for hosting revenge porn or child exploitation, police can collect and analyze data from the site on a large scale to identify users; this practice makes privacy advocates uneasy.
  • Narrowly tailored surveillance could lead to important gains in combating cyber harassment by making successful prosecution more likely.

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