Protecting Workers in Higher Risk Occupations from Online Harassment

Most employees expect that they will be safe when they go to work. They expect that the work that they do will not expose them to risks that may harm them physically or psychologically and that their families and friends will not be made vulnerable because of their jobs.

Some employees are at a higher risk because they do jobs that society deems necessary but which carry a higher degree of risk for themselves and those close to them. Often these jobs are in areas that make the lives of others better, providing protection and support. These include the military, the police and providers of social services and health services. People in these more vulnerable occupations are more often faced with situations in which their actions are protecting others from danger that involves putting themselves at risk.

Before the internet and social media existed, people in these occupations were at risk. They frequently dealt with aggression and intimidation from others and needed to take extra care to protect themselves and those around them in their personal lives. Social media has now led to potentially higher levels of exposure and vulnerability for people in these occupations. This post is focussed on understanding the nature of the new threats that people in these occupations face and how they can better protect themselves.

Online Harassment

Online harassment has many new aspects, as compared with harassment in the physical world, especially that it is easier to do. However, behaviour that would usually be criminal off line is also criminal online. Uttering threats of harm or death is illegal off and online as is making statements about someone that are false and defamatory. When these are encountered the police should be informed and action taken. The law and online harassment is further discussed later in this post.

There are many examples of online harassment that illustrate its new nature and the challenges in dealing with it. The following video is of comments made online about women sports reporters and highlights the ease with which pain can be inflicted online:

School bus monitor Karen Klein’s case is a well detailed example of how harassment can happen online. Videos were posted online of bullying of the monitor on a school bus and these received significant attention. They also resulted in a backlash with the harassers identities being exposed. The case illustrates the processes and technologies that are applied in online harassment activities:

“After much discussion, Reddit users began looking for further information, finding the name and location of the school, Karen Klein’s Facebook profile, and the names, Facebook pages, and phone numbers of her tormentors. After much of the personal information was posted, Reddit moderators stepped in, shutting down the thread for privacy violations. Moving the discussion to another site, the videos were also shared on 4chan—an image-based bulletin board community where users can post comments and share images. (The discussion surrounding Karen Klein, however, no longer exists, as 4chan has no archive and threads expire). 4chan users reposted the information that had been shared on Reddit, again sharing the same information that had previously been posted on Reddit; but this time also including their home addresses. The users had found out Klein’s tormentor’s information, and now they wanted to find a way hold them accountable.”

This discussion highlights the ease with which attention can be brought to a case and the ease with which personal privacy can be undermined.

The Research on Online Harassment

Research work is now being done on the nature of online harassment. The Pew Research organisation, which undertakes research in a number of areas around the impact of the internet on society, looks at the prevalence of online harassment and how it impacts people today. In their study in 2014 they found that online harassment was common and affected people in the following ways:

27 % of internet users have been called offensive names

22 % have had someone try to purposefully embarrass them

8 % have been stalked

7 % have been harassed for a sustained period

6 % have been sexually harassed

18 % experienced more severe forms of harassment such as physical threats, harassment over a sustained period of time, stalking and sexual harassment. Those with more information available about them online are more likely to suffer harassment and most harassment involved the use of social media – where women experienced harassment most.

Further studies confirm that women are more likely to experience online harassment. Australian research found that online harassment of women was becoming the ‘established norm’,

Protecting Yourself and Your Family

The cases that are outlined above and the research which highlights the frequency of online harassment provide the context for the work that people in higher risk jobs do. It is easier for harassers to find victim’s personal information, it appears to be more personally acceptable to engage in online harassment than it is face to face and it is very common. Those at risk are therefor vulnerable to this form of attack as a result of the work that they do.

Those in higher risk occupations need to consider that social media may be used to target and harass you. Some information that you share , which may appear innocuous, may also place you in significant danger – awareness of this by you and your family and friends is very important.

Advice on protecting your own personal privacy is widely available online, but many people fail to take the simple steps that would reduce the risks that they face. The RCMP provide guidance for the general public on what they believe is prudent in protecting yourself in your use of social media:

  1. Set your security to “Friends Only”. Social media tools vary in the nature of their security settings and these change from time to time. Make sure yours are confined to exposing your content to only those whom you are comfortable with.
  2. Eliminate swearing and content that may be embarrassing in the future. Remember that nothing you post is fully private. Never post anything that you would not be happy for a potential employer to see.
  3. Don’t post anything providing evidence of illegal activity – it can be used in criminal proceedings. Fairly obvious advice but surprisingly not always taken.
  4. Do you know who all of your contacts are? If you wouldn’t be prepared to share the information in your use of social media with someone you recently met on the street, why would you do it online? Don’t accept contact requests from people whom you don’t know.
  5. Don’t click suspicious messages. If it looks bad it probably is. If you are in doubt, contact the sender personally to confirm that it is genuine.
  6. Is it easy for people to find you? Keep personal information off of your online profile. This includes your phone number, address, schools you attended, email address etc. To find out how easily someone can get information about you, try looking for information about yourself. You will often be surprised at what you can find that would be useful to a predator.

These simple tips are intended for everyone. When you are in a higher risk occupation you will want to consider further protection.

The Canadian military are also concerned about the threat posed by social media. The United States military, believing that significant threats to military personnel exist through social media, advises its members on their safe use of social media and, in addition to the advice above, they instruct:

  1. Don’t post any confidential personal information such as social insurance numbers, bank account details or credit card numbers. Most social networking sites do not require these and you should be suspicious of any that do.
  2. Don’t share information on operations or work activities in social media. This information will be publically available and may be used to identify your activities and location and may be used to facilitate a physical attack.
  3. Be careful about pictures, videos and comments that you post. These may also identify you and provide aggressors with information that they can use.
  4. Be careful about sharing any other locational information. This will be present in information that you share on commercial premises that you may visit (restaurant reviews, pictures of meals that you are eating, sporting events that you are attending etc.)
  5. Remember that anything that you delete will probably be retained on someone else’s computer. Don’t post anything that you may regret later.
  6. Be careful about the applications that you download. Only do this from trusted sources. Apps can be used to track your activity and that activity may become public.
  7. Never share your password or login information with anyone else.
  8. Use encryption on a public Wifi network. Public wifi networks in coffee shops, airports, hotels etc. are often very vulnerable to hackers. Protect yourself when you use this type of network by using free apps that protect you such as Hotspot Shield.

The advice that the military provide is intended to enable safe social media activity. Social media has been a wonderful way for military families to stay connected when people are deployed away from their home location so ensuring safe practices is very important to them. Their advice is intended to apply not just to active personnel but also to their families and friends. Ensuring that you include them in your safe practices is essential.

The Law and Social Media Safety

As is common with many technological developments the law and the enforcement authorities take time to understand the new environment and the practices that take place inside them. Because of this there are significant uncertainties about how the existing laws should be applied and about ant new laws that may be necessary. There are areas where illegality is reasonably clear and where you should have a reasonable expectation that the authorities will respond to provide protection but there are also areas where significant uncertainty remains.

Marlisse Silver Sweeney, writing in the November 12th edition of the The Atlantic magazine, discusses some of the legal issues involved in the US and Canada. She highlights the difficulties that exist and provides advice on dealing with them.

In Canada, the federal Department of Justice provides guidance on the behaviours which may be considered as Criminal Harassment online. Their Handbook for Police and Crown Prosecutors on Criminal Harassment lists the ways that technology may be used to harass:

  • Sending harassing messages (sometimes forged in the victim’s name) through e-mail or text message to the victim or to the victim’s employers, co-workers, students, teachers, customers, friends or family.
  • Gathering or attempting to gather information about the victim, including private information relating to his or her home address, employment, financial situation and everyday activities, or using spyware to track website visits or record keystrokes the victim makes.
  • Attempting to destroy the victim’s reputation by engaging in “cyber-smearing”, i.e., sending or posting false or embarrassing intimate information about or, supposedly, on behalf of the victim.
  • Tracking a victim’s location using GPS technology (on telephones, cameras and other devices).
  • Watching or listening to a victim through hidden cameras or listening or monitoring devices.
  • Sending viruses to the victim’s computer, such as software that automatically transmits messages over a period of time.
  • Creating websites about the victim that contain threatening or harassing messages, or provocative or pornographic photographs.
  • Encouraging others to harass the victim.Constructing a new identity to entice the target to befriend the perpetrator.

They also say that charges in other areas of the Criminal Code may also be appropriate:

  • 162 (voyeurism)
  • 163.1 (distribution of child pornography)
  • 172.1 (Internet luring)
  • 241 (counselling suicide)
  • 298-302 (defamation)
  • 319(2) (wilful promotion of hatred)
  • 346 (extortion)
  • 342.1 (unauthorized use of a computer)
  • 372(1) (conveying false messages)
  • 423 (intimidation)
  • 430(1.1) (mischief in relation to data)
  • 402.2(1) (identify theft)
  • 403(1) (identity fraud)

The law is often confusing for those who are not experienced in its use. If you feel you are being criminally harassed you should contact a professional to discuss your best course of action.


This post is intended to provide guidance on the safe use of social media for at risk workers. It describes the nature of online harassment and provides advice on how best to avoid it. If harassment is encountered, advice is provided on the legal protection that is available. The law and social media are both changing rapidly at the moment – that means that some information in this post may be out of date. The websites that are linked in this post may provide more up to date guidance.



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