CyberWatch Column


Online Threats


Professor of Computer Information Systems

Norwich University, Northfield, VT

This is another in a continuing series devoted to how ordinary people can protect themselves when using the Internet.

If you or your children receive threats through e-mail, you have a right to inform your local law enforcement officials.  In today's climate of fear and violence, any threat to your children warrants attention.  In addition to the distress such messages can understandably generate in the family, they may be warning signs of serious trouble.  In particular, threats about violence at school or against any definable group may be the early warning that allows authorities to step in to defuse an explosive situation.

The other side of the coin is that your children must be made to understand that sending threatening e-mail is not an acceptable joke or a minor prank, especially if the threat involves violence.  Some children, believing incorrectly that they can mask their real identity, have foolishly sent death threats to the White House; because the Secret Service is obligated by law to investigate all threats to the President and his or her family, agents show up within a few hours to interrogate the miscreants — much to the horror of the children and their parents.  For example, Youngsters in grade 10 at Profile High School in Bethlehem, NH sent death threats to the White House Web site from their school computers.  The messages were traced within minutes by the Secret Service and the children were suspended from school and lost their Internet privileges for the next two years.

Some people, particularly children and teenagers, think that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees their right to say anything they want without consequences.  It does not:  it explicitly precludes government interference with protected speech, but any commercial organization or non-governmental body is permitted to restrict speech even if governments may not.  In addition, some kinds of speech are not protected; libel, for instance, which spreads lies about people or organizations, is not protected by the First Amendment.  Threats are also not protected speech and may therefore be prosecuted under appropriate laws.

On a related topic, it would be wise to explain to children that it is also a poor idea to insult people using e-mail.  Sending flames that belittle, ridicule and demean other people is likely to generate more of the same in response, and it's an ugly practice that distorts the kids' standards for public and private discourse.  Even if you decide to respond to rudeness, you don't have to be rude yourself.  Tell your kids about maintaining the moral high ground by refraining from obscenity, profanity, and vulgarity in written discourse.  Not only is this a good habit in general, but it avoids the possibility of enraging total strangers who may be physically or electronically dangerous.  Criminal hackers have been known to damage credit ratings, participate in identity theft to rack up large bills in the victims’ names, and even to tamper with phone company accounts. 

Anonymizers are services that strip identifying information from e-mail and then forward the text to the indicated targets.  However, even anonymizers respond to subpoenas demanding the identity of people involved in libel or threats.  For example, the service called is designed to allow people to send annoying messages to people without reaping the consequences; even that service has a particularly clear message on its refusal to tolerate abuse: > using a variety of mildly offensive terms (e.g., “jerk”) to illustrate the foolishness of people who spew abuse at each other. policy on threats < >

  • “Sample handbook language re: threats of violence” from the School Administrators of Iowa < >
  • “Special report:  When e-mail threats become real” (2001) by Jay Lyman < >
  • “Maryland man arrested after Santana High e-mail threat” (2001) < >