Every technology invents its own accident. From simple fires to explosions and nuclear catastrophes, human history has been series of increasingly sophisticated disasters. For every new piece of technology that we’ve developed, we’ve gained a new type of disaster. The ship brought us the shipwreck; the train, the derailment. Now, as we move from the Industrial to the Information Age, our accidents are again evolving. In an industry where the parts can be smaller than our fingernails and the wires don’t even exist, “disaster” isn’t as obvious as it used to be. There is no explosion, no blood and gore. Just wireless transmissions, URLs, and the quiet disintegration of human lives. What accidents has the internet introduced? Here’s what we’ve seen so far…
Cyberbullying and Internet Infamy
It’s no secret that social media can ruin your life, transforming you from an everyman to America’s most wanted. Poorly considered jokes, misdemeanors, and basic idiocy can all land you in the internet hall of fame. No one knows this better than “Star Wars Kid” Ghyslain Raza, the first person to ever go viral on the internet. Raza became infamous after a video showing him reenacting a scene from Star Wars Episode I was discovered by his classmates and uploaded to the internet without his permission on the evening of April 14, 2003. Since January 2006, the video has acquired upwards of 30,500,000 views and millions of negative comments. In 2013, Raza said of the aftermath: “It was violent. People were telling me to commit suicide.” He went on to experience “harassment and derision from his high school mates and the public at large” that resulted in years of therapy and home-schooling. Raza is now a lawyer and anti-bullying campaigner. Hopefully he uses his experience to help today’s internet victims prosecute their bullies. As for Raza’s own tormentors, they were never sentenced or brought to court.
Identity theft isn’t a new issue, but now that our relationships are increasingly online, we are more vulnerable to it than ever. Possibly the most chilling type of identity theft is “catfishing.” In internet terms, a “catfish” is someone who creates a fake online persona for malicious or pathological reasons, using stolen identities to lure victims online. It is not actually illegal to catfish someone on the internet, and law enforcement officials generally only intervene once an actual crime has been committed. Kim Savage, for instance, was tried for theft in 2014 after posing as a US Marine online and tricking two female suitors into wiring money “to Afghanistan.” This seems like a minor crime, however, when you consider the longer of history of the seduction. Kim Savage had several online aliases, but only two main victims, both of whom testified in court. “Victim One” describes how her catfish, “Neil,” telephoned her home pretending to have been shot, breathing heavily and asking to speak to the victim’s children. She says the children referred to “Neil” as their “stepfather,” and were told that he had a daughter their age who was brutally abused during his mission in Afghanistan. “Victim Two” claims to have married her catfish, “Chad,” and even changed her last name after he sent her an engagement ring (purchased using money from “Victim One”). “Victim Two” read excerpts from her correspondence with “Chad” in court, noting that she wasted her child-bearing years waiting for Chad to retire from active duty. “I don’t even know how to sentence this,” said Judge Woodward Miller, noting “unprecedented” levels of emotional devastation in the absence of any “real” crime. “Maybe legislature needs to address this,” she concluded.
The internet’s latest casualties are the victims of “revenge porn,” sexually explicit media distributed (and often sold) online without the consent of those involved. Probably the most prolific of the revenge pornographers is Hunter Moore, who ran the site “IsAnyoneUp.” Using the internet, Hunter didn’t just publicize intimate photos of his victims, he linked each photo to its victim’s social networking profiles so that friends, family and employers would see the compromising material. Several of Moore’s victims claim that their photos were uploaded by jealous lovers and ex-lovers, but a substantial portion say that the images were outright stolen. Roughly 40% of Moore’s victims claim their pictures were hacked, while another 12% claim that Moore simply photoshopped their faces onto the naked bodies of others. In February 2015, Moore pleaded guilty to aggravated identity theft and hacking, for which he will serve up to seven years in prison. Under his sentence, Moore is classified as a “hacker,” not a sex offender, because there is not yet a law against publishing revenge porn online in America.
The Dark Web
The so-called “dark web” overlays the public internet and can only be accessed using specific software. One of the most famous black markets on the Dark Web is Silk Road, a platform used for selling illegal narcotics. Between 2011 and 2014, you could purchase anything from “pure Peruvian cocaine,” to “Indian shard ketamine,” to “Pfizer Xanax bars,” and fake passports on Silk Road. The network brought together thousands of drug dealers, creating a new distribution model for black market substances. Masterminded by Ross Ulbricht, Silk Road reaped more than $13m USD while operational. Several prominent drug overdoses have been attributed to Silk Road, including the death of one prominent Microsoft employee. Ulbricht has been condemned to life in prison, a sentence that remains a major landmark in the history of internet crime. Ulbricht is held up as a warning to others: “There must be no doubt,” says Judge Katherine B Forrest, “You cannot run a massive criminal enterprise and because it occurred over the internet minimize the crime committed on that basis.” Every technology invents its own accident. The internet invented Ross Ulbricht, Hunter Moore, and the hundreds of thousands of other trolls, opportunists, and catfish that lurk in basements and behind monitors. What unites these bottom dwellers is that most of them weren’t arrested for the crimes that made them famous. Ross Ulbricht wasn’t arrested for creating Silk Road, he was arrested for money laundering. Hunter Moore wasn’t arraigned for revenge pornography, he was arraigned for hacking. Kim Savage wasn’t jailed as a catfish, but as a petty thief. The internet reinvented crime, and we are struggling to keep up. What do we do with an armchair drug dealer? A cyberbully? An Instagram identity thief? There is no hard and fast rule. If cyber-bullying is the internet equivalent of car crash, then we’re all rubber-necking onlookers. Clicking from one viral headline to the next, wondering what to do.