Cybersecurity and Sexist Terrorism

Ryan Lin, a software developer in Newton, MA, was arrested and charged with cyberstalking a former roommate, a 24 year old woman whose identity is not shared. Lin's campaign of terror included:

  • Maliciously accessing the woman's personal journal stored on Google Docs, then distributing details of her medical, psychological, and sexual history, as well as photographs, to hundreds of her friends, family, and coworkers.

  • Posting fake online ads soliciting men to visit the woman for rape fantasies and group sex. At least three men arrived at her home looking for sexual activites.

  • Commiting bomb threats to local universities and libraries in the woman's name, as well as claiming her roommate was going to "shoot up" a local school.

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Lin relied on tech savvy to instigate his relentless abuse. He exploited a VPN (Virtual Private Networks) and the Tor network to anonymize his violent online activity. He allegedly enlisted a popular "Doxxing" site to widely disseminate the woman's intimate photographs. He capitalized on the ease of social media access, creating a litany of a fake profiles with the woman's information. He was also low-tech when it suited him: he gained access to the woman's personal journal simply by accessing her unlocked laptop without her consent.

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Lin's actions constitute sexist terrorism. It was a targeted and coordinated effort to instigate fear, violate personal relationships, ruin career prospects, publicly humiliate, and ultimately destroy a woman's life. While Lin's case is unique in its extremity and the attention it garnered from law enforcement, it is absolutely not unique in the scope of women's experiences online. Campaigns of harassment and cyberstalking have been commonplace for years, overwhelmingly committed by men against women and other marginalized communities. Violent messages, doxxing, and public humiliation are ingrained within our experience of the internet. Such violence is not just the realm of anonymous "trolls": these are roommates, boyfriends, husbands, ex-partners, classmates, and coworkers.

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Cybersecurity is often a hopeful remedy for digital violence. We want to believe: if you use the safest passwords, with the best privacy tools, you can evade the nebulous dangers of the internet. Despite its best intentions, cybersecurity cannot stop an abusive man from commiting abuse. He will exploit every exposed social network, every surveillance technology, and every low-tech strategy to conduct his campaign of terror. There are far, far more vulnerabilities in our digital spaces than there are protections.

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Could the subject of Lin's abuse have protected herself online with cybersecurity technologies? It's irrelevant. It's not the responsibility of survivors to avoid abuse. Online sexism and abuse are instigated by a society that raises privileged men to control, harass, and obstruct women. We can, and should, fight for our technology. But if we want to eliminate digital violence, we need to focus on what empowers abusers.

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For those of us who can safely navigate digital spaces, it's our responsibility to address the vulnerabilities in our environment. Tech workers must address vectors of harassment within their products. Users must consider the role of consent in sharing personal information, photos, or videos on public platforms. Together, we have to push our favorite websites and apps to better: enhanced privacy controls, less invasive advertising, and disincentives for viral sharing of intimate data.

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Beyond the internet, Feminist activists have been fighting sexism for time immemorial. Often, the strategies are less "glamorous" than an app or social media campaign, but far more vital: domestic violence shelters offer housing for people escaping violence at home. Outreach organizations dealing with sexual assault, abuse, or harassment connect survivors to professionals who assist in navigating a myriad of legal, financial, and personal difficulties. Teachers instill values of compassion and equality among students who otherwise would never consider how their identity shapes their relationships. In nearly every facet of society, there are incredible movements to eradicate sexism, just as there are cynical ploys to exploit this goodwill for personal gain. Shaping minds, providing material support to Feminist work, and consolidating political power is the greatest resistance we have.

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Patriarchy thrives online and off. Smash it where you see it.