Cyberstalkers beware: New toolkit nabs online predators

Researchers at Florida State University are developing a computer system designed to help law enforcement agents thwart cyberstalking.

Computer science Professor Sudhir Aggarwal and members of the Florida Cybersecurity Institute have built a hardware and software prototype called the Predator and Prey Alert (PAPA) system. The forensic toolkit is designed to provide high-quality evidence for the prosecution of cyberstalking cases.

"Cyberstalking is becoming an increasing problem, but it has been difficult to do anything about it," Aggarwal said. "The anonymity of the Internet makes it easier to do than physical stalking. Stalkers used to use the phone or show up on your doorstep; now they can use a computer."

The PAPA project, which is funded by a $281,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, also involves researchers from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C). FDLE and the NW3C will evaluate the prototype before the group pursues its goal of developing a commercial version of the tool in the next few years, Aggarwal said.

Cyberstalking, in its simplest form, is stalking via the Internet. In recent years there has been a growing trend toward the criminalization of cyberstalking. Florida, for example, made cyberstalking a first-degree misdemeanor in 2003 with a statute that describes it as communication by way of e-mail or other electronic communication directed at a specific person, causing substantial emotional distress to that person and serving no legitimate purpose. Aggravated stalking and stalking of a minor are among the variations that constitute felony charges.

Despite the new laws, law enforcement agencies have had difficulty trying to prevent and detect cyberstalking and apprehend the perpetrators. The anonymity and reach of the Internet, the fragility of electronic evidence, and privacy statutes that protect all forms of live wire communication all pose law enforcement challenges, Aggarwal said.

"More people have access to technology, and these cyberstalkers are more sophisticated users so they can better cover their tracks," he said.

The PAPA system allows a law enforcement agent to remotely shadow a victim, advise the victim by communicating through a separate side channel and assume control of the victim’s computer in order to interact directly with the stalker. While the victim is logged on, PAPA automatically records all exchanges displayed on screen, even when the agent is not available.

"The PAPA system takes advantage of the cyberstalker’s aggressive and repetitive behavior by recording the victim’s desktop experience of attacks and giving investigators the ability to proactively intervene," Aggarwal said. "The agent can assume the online identity of the victim, or collaborate with the victim via a second channel."

Recorded data is securely stored on the session recorder to prevent evidence tampering. Analysis and presentation of evidence is explored through a console that permits basic and advanced searches of the recorded data.

The system is designed to collect evidence that conforms to admissibility standards by avoiding surveillance methods that violate privacy standards, such as those outlined in federal wiretapping statutes, Aggarwal said.

Aggarwal, FSU computer science Professor Mike Burmester, Florida Cybersecurity Institute research coordinator Judie Mulholland and FSU graduate student Peter Henry and Leo Kermes developed the concept after discussing ideas with Bob Breeden of FDLE and representatives of NW3C.