You can’t know what it’s like to be harassed online on a daily basis ... it’s such a lonely experience.
You can hear it in his voice. The effect the whole experience had on him. There’s resolve, but there’s also a sad exasperation as he describes his and his wife’s victimization and how no one he turned to had an answer for him when he needed help.
Andrew Bolson, CIPP/US, and his wife, Marisa, were living in New York City four years ago when they were targeted by a cyber criminal. In a case that’s still unresolved, though there’s been recent progress, Bolson’s wife was cyber stalked and harassed after her email account was hacked.
Suddenly, she was signed up for myriad products and services on hundreds of sites; her phone number was used to create ads on Craigslist to sell fake products—including kittens, which is illegal on the site.
“So people were texting her to say, how can you sell kittens? You’re an awful person,” Bolson said, speaking from his home in New Jersey.
In an example that particularly outraged Bolson, the cyber stalker found the couple's anniversary date and then signed them up for a divorce attorney referral site, ushering in a barrage of emails from hungry divorce attorneys ready to nullify Maris and Andrew’s marriage on the day they were to celebrate it. That one hurt. It was personal.
“This was harassment,” Bolson said. He was scared of where it was going next. “You can’t know what it’s like to be harassed online on a daily basis.”
And it didn’t stop.
He went to the police, but this was New York City. They essentially told him they had bigger fish to fry.
“It’s been a very frustrating thing getting this thing dealt with,” Bolson said. “I’m an attorney; I felt like, how is this happening? How am I not able to protect my wife? That was so incredibly frustrating to me. I said to myself, ‘I don’t understand why I have no power.’”
Hating that feeling, that powerlessness, he decided he was going to have to make moves. He learned everything he could about privacy. He joined the IAPP and got certified as a privacy pro; he started connecting with other privacy pros; he read books. He became, in the end, an advocate for what he calls “personal privacy rights.”
In January, after moving from the city with his wife, he launched The Privacy Initiative of New Jersey with a mission “to promote common-sense legislation and regulations” at a grassroots, state level. While much of the rhetoric of late, most notably from the president’s podium, has focused on consumer privacy rights or the government’s role in protecting privacy, Bolson said the problem is twofold: The laws on the books don’t address the capabilities of modern technology, and not enough attention has been placed on protecting the safety of individuals’ day-to-day lives now that we live and breathe online. It leaves a lot of room open for victimization.
“If someone is really intent on harassing you online, I think the power, since it’s done anonymously, the power is with the abuser. The victims are left to feel helpless and frustrated,” he said.
Bolson’s experience isn’t uncommon. A Pew Research Center study conducted in October 2014 found that 73 percent of adult Internet users have seen cyber harassment and 40 percent have experienced it.
Even if cyber crimes are reported to a precinct less waterlogged than New York City, there’s no guarantee that it will have the technical expertise on board to effectively investigate the crime, Bolson said.
“In privacy in particular, I think there’s a discrepancy. How you deal with personal privacy issues depends on where you live,” Bolson said. “If you live in a very small place with just a few police officers, they don’t have resources. But in NYC, these issues are not important.”
So he sees his initiative as bridging some of the gaps, even if it means starting small.
“A lot of organizations are on a more global scale, working in terms of federal government and talking about important governmental issues, Snowden, etc.,” he said. “But there weren’t many organizations that I knew or encountered that were really working on the grass-root levels, working with local governments, working for common-sense privacy reform.”
To be effective, Bolson said, legislators need to understand what it’s like to a be a victim.
“What does a victim go through? If you are a victim, what could be done to change the course to make it more of an empowering experience. That’s kind of why I founded this organization,” he said.
Bolson’s website declares his privacy agenda. It includes larger visions at the federal level—like supporting data-broker reform and reexamining a law that immunizes websites for content posted by third-parties—but for now, he’s focused on making change in New Jersey.
He wants a statewide chief privacy officer; he wants the New Jersey Address Confidentiality Program to extend beyond victims of domestic violence to include victims of cyber harassment, and he wants the state’s breach notification law amended to help consumers understand what of their data has been breached and how to prevent identity theft.
“I don’t want my address out there,” Bolson said. “However, I own a house, and there’s only so much I can do.”
Bolson also plans to visit high schools to talk to parents, teachers and students about how to protect themselves from becoming victims or helping them to understand they aren’t alone if they become victims.
“I encourage people on the website to share their story,” he said. “I think that’s the hardest part. It’s such a lonely experience. I want people to share their stories so hopefully they don’t feel alone.”
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