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Cyberbullying – an epidemic

In 1993, I participated in my first computer investigation.  The event was unremarkable by today’s standards: a simple review of a business personal computer, seeking artifacts of a white-collar crime.  I spent no more than five hours on the review, the report, and the testimony.  By comparison, my most recent review lasted four months, a total of six digital forensics examiners worked on the case, and the report yielded volumes of data, some of which were situated in faraway geographies.

As the attraction of the worldwide web grew, so did the abuse and misuse of the technologies.  In the late 1990’s, our computer forensics (now, digital forensics) cases expanded beyond white-collar crime.  Portable technologies matured beyond luggable computers and we were introduced to a growing array of technology-based crimes.

The devices became smaller, access to the worldwide web became ubiquitous by the mid-2000’s.  The abuse of technology extended beyond traditional criminal activity.

In 2006, I received a request that angered and horrified me.  Law enforcement often call with requests to review computer evidence, sometimes, they request assistance in collecting the computer evidence.  A state law enforcement agency requested assistance with collection of computer evidence from an active crime scene.  I traveled to the site.

I was unaware of the nature of the crime, until my arrival.  A child, not quite a teenager, committed suicide.  Near the child, a laptop glowed eerily.  Law enforcement did not want to interact with the laptop due to its changing contents, for fear of damaging possible evidence.

The laptop displayed active contents from a discussion board.  I discovered that the child visited the discussion board seeking help.  The digital hangout was popular among teenagers.  The presence, while not designed with ill intentions, became a conduit for bullying.  Young people visited the site, degraded one another, spoke poorly about themselves and others.  The power of perceived anonymity was powerful: remain hidden behind a computer and lash out, act in a fashion that most would never contemplate in the physical world.

However, on this day, the child visited the site and pleaded for the attacks to stop.  The participants didn’t stop.  The attacks continued, hateful comments flowed freely.  The child announced to the group that he wanted to kill himself.  Only a moment of hesitation appeared, and, then, the digital spectators encouraged the suicide.

The report was delivered and the case was investigated.  A community was horrified.  I visited the community with the Attorney General and we spoke about the importance of understanding the power of technology, how to avoid such events in the future.

Over the past eleven years, I’ve presented Cyber-Awareness programs to youth and adults, to hundreds of thousands of participants.  Most leave the presentations with a heightened sense of awareness, a desire to use technology in a positive fashion.

However, after all of these years, I wish I could convey that the 2006 incident was an isolated experience.  It wasn’t.  Cyberbullying continues to grow.  The availability of digital outlets expands.  Adults mingle with youth in social media sites, adults attack children, children attack one another.  The relative anonymity of the internet is appealing to bullies.  The damage is constant and easy to perpetrate.  The visibility of the poor activity is ongoing, fast and unrelenting.  And, sadly, many encourage the activity.

William Greg Price is the chief technology and security officer at Troy University and also serves as the District 2 representative on the Pike County Board of Education.