Specialized training needed for police to deal with online harassment, privacy expert says

Responding to a CBC News report, privacy lawyer Karen Eltis says police officers need better training to help young women dealing with online harassment.

Case of woman whose information was posted on escort websites emblematic of larger problem, law prof says

A Montreal woman is living with friends until she finds a new apartment after her picture and personal information were posted online in ads offering escort services. (Sylvain Charest/CBC )

Canadian police officers need additional training for how to deal with online crimes, a leading privacy expert says.

Karen Eltis, a law professor at University of Ottawa and a specialist in privacy law, says without extra training for frontline officers, victims of online harassment will become skeptical of reporting incidents.

Eltis is responding to a CBC News report about a 25-year-old woman whose personal information, including her phone number and address, was posted in several online ads for escorts.

Melissa reported what happened to her to police but says they told her there was little they could do.

She was told an investigator would call her within two weeks. It's been 12 days since she filed a police report and to date, she has received no response.

Melissa is not her real name. CBC News is protecting her identity because she fears the situation will escalate if her name is published.

Since Melissa's story was made public, about half a dozen other Montreal women have contacted CBC News, describing similar stories of police inaction in handling their files.

Young women often victims

Studies show the bulk of complainants in cases involving online harassment are young women, Eltis said, and officers should be aware of that when they're investigating the crime.

"I think that the internet age ushers in a similar need for specialized training and specialized awareness because young women are truly the number-one victims," she said.

She said police officers can fall back into victim-blaming, insinuating the complainant might be responsible for whatever harassment she is enduring.

"The response has to be one of seriousness, respectfulness and one of social context, that realizes that otherwise women will be deterred not only from a presence on the internet — young women in particular — but also from accessing justice," Eltis said.

She warns that ineffective policing will make women reconsider whether to take public positions, where they might be subjected to online harassment.

No specialized training for Montreal police

Cmdr. Juan Vargas Castillo of the Montreal police service's fraud unit said the force takes these cases seriously and examines them on a case-by-case basis.

If police feel there's sufficient evidence, investigators will request a warrant to get the IP address of the computer of the person behind harmful posts.

Vargas Castillo said his department submits at least 10 requests for warrants per day but said only a small percentage of the police reports that cross his desk are related to online impersonation.

"Here in Montreal, we don't have many," he said.

He admits the 30 sergeant detectives in the city's fraud unit do not have specialized training for dealing with online crime.