I was recently asked this question:
“Do you think it’s necessary to create new terms for “ordinary” crimes committed with more advanced tools? Is cyberstalking simply stalking using the internet?”
To adequately answer a seemingly simple yet incredibly complex question such as this we need to understand certain aspects of legal systems. First, as Cordner and Scarborough (2007) pointed out, legal systems are by nature political systems. This is not to be confused with partisan politics, but rather the natural tension of a group composed of member who each want as much freedom as possible while still maintaining an environment where they will not themselves be taken advantage of. As such, legal definitions of crimes are intended to be based upon those expectations of protection from harm while maintaining as little government intervention as possible. Is this always the case? Perhaps not; however, this is the basis of legal theory, particularly amongst Western nations (Samaha, 2008).
Based upon the aforementioned legal theory, in answer to the question “do you think it’s necessary to create new terms for ‘ordinary’ crimes committed with more advanced tools,” I would respond that what I think is to some extent inconsequential by itself as what the community or nation in general would deem criminally deviant is what must be defined as criminal through the use of legal code (Worrall, 2007). This brings us to another interesting facet of law: that the law is not, nor was ever meant to be a static codex, but rather is a constantly evolving system meant to protect members of society from harm; by nature it must change and adapt to new threats (Samaha, 2008).
I believe an excellent example of the need for evolutionary legal systems lies in codes such as 18 U.S.C. §2701 which makes it a criminal offense to access stored communications without authorization. 18 U.S.C. §2701 essentially allows the prosecution of individuals who hack email servers or phone message systems. Prior to 18 U.S.C. §2701 there very likely was no way to prosecute individuals who hacked into email servers and for most state statutes no law, be it burglary or unlawful entry, would completely fit. Not even theft would fit under such circumstances in most jurisdictions as theft generally requires preventing another individual from using the item; however, with data, it can be taken without preventing others from using it (Worrall, 2007).
As to the question of stalking versus cyberstalking in particular, I would pose the question of existing state statute. Obviously if a state statute requires that the stalker be physically present then stalking via the internet would be perfectly legitimate; however, may be entirely reprehensible to the community. Such a situation requires either the modification of existing stalking statute to include activities over the internet or an entirely different code would need to be developed.
Cordner, G.W., & Scarborough, K.E. (2007). Police administration. Newark, NJ: Lexis Nexis.
Samaha, J. (2008). Criminal law 6th edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Learning.
Worrall, J.L. (2007). Criminal procedure: from first contact to appeal. Boston, MA: Pearson.