Legal Implications of Online Impersonation

The possibility of identity theft is a growing concern. However, banks, credit card companies, and various other institutions that house private information regularly take steps to protect customers’ identities. Nonetheless, a different type of identity theft continues to thrive. Online impersonation is a quick and easy form of identity theft that takes place over the Internet. It is an easy type of identity theft given the breadth and convenience of social media and expanding networking sites. However, in light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School incident, state and federal authorities are considering the possibility of bringing criminal charges for online impersonation.

State legislatures called for laws against online impersonation following the case of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who killed herself after a woman impersonated a boy and engaged in cyberbullying. After the Sandy Hook shooting, people began posting incorrect information about the shooting and the suspect. Others began posing as the shooter and staging crime scenes similar to the shooting. Connecticut State Police Lieutenant J. Paul Vance called attention to this matter in a public press conference. He noted that these posts, in addition to being highly inappropriate, were also threatening and criminal in nature.

A spokesman for Commissioner Reuben Bradford stated that, harassing anyone who was a victim of the shooting would be criminally prosecuted. He noted that harassment would not only include in person contact, but also harassment through via the Internet and social media sites. Charges could include criminal impersonation and criminal misrepresentation. California and several other states have established online impersonation as a criminal offense. Critics argue that criminal regulations that prohibit online impersonation may arm interest groups with the power to suppress speech. For example, Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that such laws could silence groups like The Yes Men, which utilizes online impersonation as a form of commentary on the government and large corporations.

However, it is much harder to identify potential suspects online because they are able to operate behind the safety of false identities or even anonymity. Even though investigators could connect an account to an IP address, they would then have the responsibility of showing who was accessing the IP address at the time. With family computers and public computers, it is difficult to establish who was using the computer when multiple people had access to the same computer. There may also be an added burden of establishing that the online impersonation posed an actual threat. In order to sustain a case for online impersonation, prosecutors must also show that the online communication went beyond protected speech and crossed into criminal behavior.

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