COVER STORY: Cyber bully
30th September 2004 (New Straits Times)
By Anita Anandarajah

Bullying has moved with the times. In the cyber world, bullies can now penetrate their victims' homes even in the dead of the night. ANITA ANANDARAJAH reports

IN New York recently, some eighth-grade girls decided to give Amanda Marcuson, the new girl in school, a welcome she'd never forget. First, they stole her pencil case filled with makeup.

Soon after Amanda reported them, instant messages started popping up on her computer screen back home. They called her a tattle-tale and a liar.

When she typed back "You stole my stuff!", the response was "you're a stuck-up bitch". Subsequent replies grew increasingly ugly.

Two weeks ago, a 15-year-old Singapore boy, hacked into his enemy's e-mail account, changed the password to deny him access, and then sent out bogus messages from the account designed to get the latter into trouble.

A quick check with several secondary school students in the Klang Valley revealed that cyber bullying is common, and has in fact been around for at least five years.

ASP Mahfuz Abd Majid from the police Technology Crime Investigation Unit confirmed this, saying that the same bullying cases he saw 20 years ago are now taking place online.

A victim of vile, vicious online threats

But what if messages like "raping her is no fun - you'll end up having a sore dick. Better yet, hire some thugs to take care of her until she dies of sexual exhaustion" become a daily occurrence?

That statement was allegedly posted in the online community forum of a co-ed secondary school in a wealthy suburb in Kuala Lumpur.

The system administrator was a 14-year-old female who did nothing to censor or bar the above comment and tens of others that terrorised a third former for three months. Worse, she partook in the vulgar insults along with the others.

It all began with an online forum, started with the intention of running down one of the prefects in school who presumably made the lives of a few unruly students miserable. A poll ensued. It was titled "Who do you hate?"

In the same online community, there was a separate forum insulting teachers.

When the prefect was spied reading some of the comments about the teachers, her would-be tormentors spread the word that she had printed out the comments to be distributed to the school principal. It never happened, of course.

From then on, the seriousness of the threats escalated. "Let's slice her boobs and rub chilli on them roast her pubic hair and make her eat them," went one vicious comment.

When asked how she felt reading these messages, the prefect put on a brave face and said that they didn't bother her.

After a little prodding, she admitted that she found them irritating, especially when one of the perpetrators yelled "Bitch!" every time he walked past her class.

"I just want to put this behind me as soon as possible," she said.

What is disturbing is most of the tormentors were unknown to the victim. But she knows who they are now, thanks to some sleuthing work by her parents.

She acknowledges that she may have stepped on a few toes while carrying out her duties as a prefect but she was taken aback by the vicious reactions.

She is lucky that her parents are supportive - and IT -savvy. Her mother painstakingly printed out every message posted on the website and tracked down the students involved while her father approached the school authorities and, at his insistence, called for a meeting with the parents of the bullies.

"What was shocking was that all of them (about a dozen in all) were from well-to-do families. They are also exemplary students in school," said the girl's father.

"But I noticed that their fathers were absent most of the time and they were left alone a lot," added the girl's mother.Her parents even spoke to some of the students, demanding to know why they were picking on their daughter.

When her father asked one of the boys why he did it, this was the horrific reply: "It's a free world."

Her parents have come to an agreement with the bullies' parents and will not pursue the matter anymore.

"As parents, we are aware that a police report will leave a black mark on their records. What if one day our children were to commit the same mistake? How would we react? That's why I hesitated to lodge a police report," said the father.

An online bully's confession

Mark readily admitted that he picked on "weaker" people, very much like how a school bully would.

On the outside, he is quiet, studious and well-mannered. But once online, he sizes up other people who he deems less IT-savvy than he is.

"I pick random people online. When we're online, it is possible to gain certain information. This can be done by downloading certain tracking software from illegal websites. All one has to do is type in the IP address into the software and you can pinpoint their location - right down to a specific township even.

"Many people think they're safe and anonymous online," he said.

Mark pointed out that if the victim has limited IT knowledge, he would begin by making empty threats - like saying that he would send e-mail from his inbox to everyone.

"Those who know better will call my bluff," he said.

A victim may unwittingly release vital information. Mark once asked one of his victims what type of connection and speed he was hooked up to. The answer was "Streamyx".

"I knew right away that he was in Malaysia as Streamyx is a broadband service provided by TM Net, one of our local service providers," he explained.

Mark's advice: "You can protect yourself. Avoid the verbal abuse by blocking them or by switching to another chat room. Or simply ignore the comments."

Do not think that because you are a minor, you are above the law.

"Whether or not the perpetrator is a juvenile, he can be charged like any other criminal," said Mahfuz, who advised victims to lodge a police report if they wanted action to be taken.

Cyber bullies can be easily traced

Q: What does cyber bullying involve? What methods are used?

A: There are several ways that young people bully others online. They send e-mail containing insults or threats directly to a person. They may also spread hateful comments about a person through e -mail, instant messaging or postings on websites and online diaries. Young people steal passwords and send out threatening e-mail or instant messages using an assumed identity. Technically-savvy children may build whole websites, often with password protection, to target specific students or teachers.

These methods are simple as all one needs to know is how to log into the Internet, send/receive e-mail, chat and download files.

Q: Is there any way to trace the bully?

A: Yes, any kind of bullying or illegal activity done via the Net is traceable. This is done by analysing system logs, full headers and other information or evidence that can be extracted from a machine used to carry out the bullying activities.

Q: Is cyber bullying legal? Are there any laws to tackle such cases?

A: Cyber bullying is illegal. Bullies can be convicted under the Computer Crimes Act, the Penal Code or the Juvenile Act, depending on the nature or severity of the case.

Q: Whose responsibility is it to ensure this problem does not persist?

A: It is the responsibility of parents, schools and youngsters to take proactive action to prevent or minimise such activities in the society.

Parents should be more aware of and monitor their children's activities on the Internet. They should even consider installing software in their home PCs to monitor their child's online activities. Parents should also limit the time spent by their children on the computer. Schools can integrate curriculum-based Net-bullying programmes into classrooms and educate teachers, students and parents about the seriousness of cyber bullying. Schools may consider updating the school or board's computer Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) to specifically prohibit using the Internet for bullying.

Answers provided by MyCert

The wrath of law

YOU can get into serious trouble if bullying people online is your thing. Here are a couple of cyber laws you may have already broken:

1. Computer Crimes Act 1997

Section Three: Unauthorised access to computer materials. If convicted, the offender is liable to a fine of not more than RM50,000 or a prison term of not more than five years.

Section Four: Unauthorised access to computer materials with the intent to commit or facilitate an offence. If convicted, the offender is liable to a fine of not more than RM150,000 or a prison term of not more than 10 years.

Section Five: Unauthorised modification to contents. If convicted, the offender is liable to a fine of not more than RM100,000 or a prison term of not more than seven years.

2. Communication and Multimedia Act

Section 223: Improper use of network facilities or network services

Note: Under this section, any comment, request, suggestion or any other communication which sounds obscene, indecent, is false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person commits an offence.

If convicted, the offender is liable to a fine of not more than RM50,000 or a prison term of not more than one year.

How to deal with online harassment

NEITHER the police nor MyCert (Malaysian Computer Emergency Response Team), which deals with computer security and methods of prevention, has received any reports of cyber bullying.

According to ASP Mahfuz Abd Majid of the police's Technology Crime Investigation Unit, this could be due to the problem being settled privately by the parties involved or the victims may feel that there is no significant loss (usually in monetary terms) to warrant the hassle of lodging a report.

Less than 10 per cent of breaches in Internet security made to MyCert are lodged with the police.

If you've been flamed, spammed or harassed in an online community, the experience can be terrifying or plain annoying. Here's what you can do:

1. Do not reply to spam (junk e-mail). It will confirm your e-mail address and lead more spam into your inbox.

2. Ignore the hate mails (being 'flamed') and spam as much as you can. Sometimes, all the perpetrators want is for you to respond.

3. However, once these messages start to distress you, show it to a parent. "If you think your life could be in danger, lodge a report at the nearest police station. They will then conduct an investigation," said Mahfuz.