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Legally Blindsided?

We have all become familiar with the MTV phenomenon “Catfish”, and some of us may even take pleasure in watching these quite obviously counterfeit personas collapse in real time, right before our eyes. MTV does show us the “reality” of broken-hearted individuals who put their souls on the line, trying to find love on a number of online dating sites, but what MTV chooses not to show us is the actual legal dangers behind impersonating another person or creating a false identity online. This is an issue that persists now in our digital realm now more than ever before, and it is crucial that these “catfishes” see the legal damage as well as the personal damage to their online identity they could possibly be doing by letting an innocent fish story go too far.      

In honor of Valentine’s Day coming up this week, we should acknowledge the various ways people find love in the age of digital media, many of which would seem completely alien in the days of drive-in movie dates and calling up potential mates on their home phone, from a landline. Even though they were raised on a culture of sock-hops, the generation of baby boomers is surprisingly the one boosting the sign-ups for dating websites. They have quite a variety of sites to choose from–Match.com and EHarmony.com are not the only choices anymore; love-seekers can find his or her matches through JDate, for Jewish singles, Cupidtino, for those fans of Apple products, ChristianMingle, for Christian singles, VeggieDate, a site just for vegetarians, FarmersOnly, for rural dwellers, mobile apps such as Grindr for gay males, its heterosexual version, Blendr, or even OurTime, a site for senior citizens still in search of a partner. There truly is something for everyone, which means there is a diverse population of users on the various networks, leading to potential trouble with identity theft and impersonation.

Before even discussing legal repercussions for foul play with online identities, it is important to mention that anything posted on any dating or networking site can haunt you and the way you are personally viewed online for years to follow. According to Rainy Reitman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Photos in particular can linger long after you’ve deleted them or closed your account due to many large websites hosting user-uploaded photos with Content Delivery Networks“. This means that any kind of content from online dating sites, especially photos, can resurface on the Internet to be viewed by anyone at any time, or to be hacked and used by other users on their own dating profile. Another risk is Google’s indexing, in which many profiles on public dating sites, such as OKCupid, a site for college-aged daters, can be located in a simple search. In addition, facial recognition software has been fine-tuned with Facebook’s ability to tag photos automatically based on facial features. With this technology, your true identity, or the identity of whoever you are impersonating, can be discovered if almost any other photos of that person exist on the Internet.  Geotagging is an additional liability, especially with the mainstream use of smartphones. A photo’s location can easily be tracked from the exact spot in which it was taken, which makes the person or people in the photo that much easier to identify, and vulnerable to hackers who can target specific geographic areas as well. Online daters also expose themselves and their online lives to potential marketers who can track their history and every click they make online, along with as other financial scams from potential partners who “find love” and then solicit their new online lover for money or any other material items.  When it comes to your own online reputation, the law cannot account for what you personally do to slander your image; it is the responsibility of all users of dating and other networking sites to circulate only the content that reflects whom they would like to be seen as online. However, when it comes to stolen identities or posing as an alternate identity, the law covers these bases well.

Catfishing“, the blanket term used to describe online impersonation, does not simply include the creation of a fake profile on a dating website, but logging in to any social network or email account as another person, as well as using photos from another online user or using another person’s name with your own photos, and proceeding to network with others online. Any kind of personal or financial fraud along with the various methods of cyber-bullying is also included underneath the umbrella of impersonation of another person’s online identity. The MTV show “Catfish” features plenty of broken hearts and lonely, disappointed people, but never shows any consequences other than emotional that individuals involved in “catfish” situations face in the real world. Internet identity impersonation is currently a criminal misdemeanor with a consequence of large fines and up to a year in jail in the states of New York and California, and is actually a felony in the state of Texas, punishable by as much as ten years of jail time. Bills are continually being passed in multiple other states, and impersonation, especially that which deliberately delivers false information to a large number of people through social media, is becoming a serious crime. For example, the state of Connecticut has added to this bandwagon after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in December 2012, after which a number of Twitter users posed as the perpetrator of the shooting, while others sent incorrect information surrounding the event via digital media. Impersonation has been known to lead to tragic cases of cyber-bullying, such as the story of Megan Meier, a teen girl from Missouri, who was bullied to the point of suicide in 2006 by a female peer and her mother, impersonating a teenage boy on MySpace. This incident prompted further legal consequences for falsifying online identities in many states, including Missouri. Another now well-known case of  online impersonation is infamous Manti Te’o scandal of 2012, in which the beloved Notre Dame football star experienced catfishing first hand, when he first discovered that his Internet “girlfriend” had suddenly died, later discovering that his online relationship was a complete scam. This type of online harassment is now not taken nearly as lightly as MTV presents it in the majority of the states in the U.S.; scamming another person on the Internet gives the victim the right to press charges on the catfish, deciding by a trial whether that person will incur enormous fines or time behind bars.

Catfishing clearly does not occur only on online dating sites, but anywhere on the World Wide Web. A broad spectrum of people have been involved in catfish-related incidents, from young teenagers, to college students, to middle-aged Internet users, to professional athletes and other celebrities, gaining the misdemeanor much attention in the press through a variety of channels. In many of these states that are passing stricter online safety and cyber-bullying laws, a simple practical joke or attempt at flirting with a crush online gone too far could have legal ramifications that the perpetrator would have never considered prior to intentionally or unintentionally deceiving someone they met on the Internet. It cannot be stated enough times that we need to be vigilant of our every move online, because one step down the wrong path of online impersonation could alter our true Internet identity as well as our real-life identity for the rest of our lives.

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