Online bullying and Skype crime: Police face “new environment”

Last week’s news that police in Scotland would investigate the apparent blackmail of teenager Daniel Perry, who committed suicide following events that took place on Skype, represented a significant but unusual evolution in the laws governing the digital domain.

Blackmail is a long established criminal activity, and it seems self evident that a criminal prosecution could easily be mounted should evidence emerge that it was carried out. But the role or otherwise of Skype and the digital universe in these events bears some further examination.

The police response, from a PR point of view, has been swift. Within 24 hours Detective Superintendent Steven Wilson, head of Police Scotland’s new e-Crime division, issued a general warning, a move that suggests that their approach is not to actively police the online arena, but to send discouraging signals, akin to similar “days of action” against mobile phone use whilst driving, cracked down upon on three designated days per year. Chronic crime is not like catching bank robbers, and requires a deterrent tactic. Crucially though, the warning was not addressed to bullies or the likely offenders, but to parents.

“We have faced problems of children being bullied from time immemorial. Now we have a new environment in which to deal with this and to police it where threats and criminal behaviour come in,” DS Wilson said.

“Many of the solutions we apply back in school still work online. The problem is, though, so many of the kids and teenagers are more cyber aware than their parents are.

“You have to understand what your children are doing online. We would suggest putting content filters up to a higher setting, for example, although we acknowledge children might bypass these or use their mobile phone. That is why, at the same time, parents need to sit their children down and say, ‘These are the issues you need to be aware of, these are the sites you should avoid’.”

The approach is reminiscent of the "Just say ‘No’" message on drug use of the 1980s.

At the time of publication, the police have not confirmed any criminal charges have been brought. Some media outlets have reported that Daniel Perry’s Skype interactions may have been recorded by his blackmailers, but this has not been confirmed. If the evidence is only to be found in the ephemeral world of Skype, producing anything that would satisfy the requirements of the burden of proof may turn out to be the Achilles heel in prosecuting crimes committed with a Skype component. Almost universally, the law does not permit routine monitoring of Skype calls. The technology has advanced more swiftly than the analogue law’s ability to cope.

Other jurisdictions have encountered similar criminal circumstances. In Singapore in February 2012, police broke up an extortion ring that had blackmailed users of an online dating site, after they managed to persuade users to appear nude on Skype. One victim was blackmailed in increments to hand over $97,000 across 80 separate payments to keep the footage secure. Crucially though, the blackmailers had recorded the compromising footage, providing the essential evidence that would attest to the crimes.

Similarly, in Israel last year, an officer from the Israeli army was arrested after allegedly forcing dozens of women and teenage girls to strip in front of their computer webcams under threat that he would attack their computers with a virus if they did not comply.

“During the investigation we contacted dozens of girls ages 14 through 18, as well as women, who had allegedly fallen victim to his threats," a police official said.

Israeli press reported that the arrested man communicated with his victims extensively using social networks and the instant messaging functions on Skype and Facebook prior to executing the offences. The crime of blackmail via Skype is certainly novel, but not unprecedented. However once again in this case, a clear chain of evidence existed to facilitate an investigation and produce evidence that could be led in a trial.

In the absence of supporting email, tweets, posts or chat records, if events taking place on Skype are not recorded, law enforcement officials have very little to work with, and precious little evidence to bring to a courtroom.

Whilst the world is still reeling from the Prism data mining revelations, the prevailing climate is deeply opposed to indiscriminate state scrutiny of our online lives. But there is a clear and persistent friction between the privacy that is demanded online, and the policing of crimes committed there. These are pioneer days, and this new frontier is still wild. And the world doesn’t seem willing to support having the NSA or GCHQ as the new Sheriff in town.

Should this subject affect yourself or any other young person you know, then ChildLine can be contacted on 0800 1111.

Steven Raeburn

All by Steven