Saturday 27 November 2010

For Women, Cyber Crimes Are All Too Real

Karachi, Pakistan - The Grade 10 student was first drugged, and then four men raped her. The group then apparently tried to extort money from her family. When the family filed a complaint with the police instead, the extortionists in October then posted a cellphone video of her whole ordeal on the Internet.
The crime is horrific enough to catch the attention of anyone, as is the act of uploading a video of it on the World Wide Web. But what is also making rights advocates sit up here in Pakistan is the fact that the victim’s family had actually come forward to report the crime.
After all, says stalking victim-turned-activist Fariha Akhtar, "We prefer being abused and harassed than being ‘dishonoured’ in the eyes of society". That is why, she says, women have become easy targets for cyber crimes in this male-dominated South Asian society.
In the last few years, Pakistan has been catching up with the rest of the world in getting wired, which has not only opened up the country to more business opportunities, but has also livened up social communications among families and friends.
But technology has aided the commitment of crimes as well, with many of these directed towards women. According to special public prosecutor Nighat Dad, women have become victims of cyber pornography and ‘morphed’ or ‘photoshopped’ lewd photos of them that are uploaded onto the Net or passed around through mobile phones.
There are no hard figures to come by for this, though, in part because the victims are too ashamed to lodge a formal complaint.
Akhtar also explains, "Since technology is considered a guy thing, they are given more opportunities to toy with it, leaving women with very limited knowledge to even stay safe while using it, combined with the orders to keep silent should they experience abuse."
Indeed, the Islamabad-based think tank Institute of Policy Studies says there were 412 recorded cases of cyber crime in 2007 to 2009 alone. Yet not one of those is apparently regarding violence against a woman. Says the institute: "(Violence) against women and even their pornographic presentation do not have a mention in the list of cyber crimes in Pakistan."
And yet the cyber crimes may not even be as cruel as what happened to the Grade 10 student for it to affect female victims deeply.
Three years ago, for example, then 27-year-old Zara (not her real name) thought she had it all. A business graduate, she had just been promoted in the telecommunications company where she worked and had a doting fiancé by her side.
But then a male colleague posted photos of Zara purportedly in the nude on the company website. Recalls her sister: "Her life came crumbling down."
The culprit was eventually caught, and he admitted to having photoshopped Zara’s photographs to appear she was naked. He said he wanted to teach her a lesson for "not sharing some data" with him.
"Her boss implored her not to resign," says Zara’s sister. "But she could not continue in that company knowing her co-workers had seen those pictures. Word spread and her fiancĂ© broke off the engagement."
Experts in the field say that developing countries like Pakistan are more vulnerable to cyber crimes than other nations. Shahzad Ahmad of Bytes For All (B4A), which works towards Internet governance and rights, says the main reason for this is the "non-existent legal structures".
While there used to be a Prevention of Electronic Crime Ordinance, this lapsed in November 2009. So, Akhtar says, even if cyber criminals are caught, there is no way of prosecuting them. "At least not for the cyber aspect of their crime," she says.
Ahmad also says the judiciary is incapable of appreciating the "intricacies of such crimes".
Akhtar concedes that authorities have at least started tackling harassment through mobile telephones to some extent. But she says that while counselling a girl whose fake profiles were continuously being created on Facebook, she found out that the state agency she had referred the victim to had its website hacked.
"It left me wondering if they would be of any help," she says of the National Response Centre for Cyber Crimes.
Akhtar says the typical profile of a cyber criminal is usually someone who knows the victim or victims with whom he or she had had some altercation. She adds that in majority of the cases she has come across, the perpetrator is male.
She remembers only one case where the cyber harassers turned out to be females: "They were a group of young girls from of the upmarket schools in Karachi."
She and other rights activists are now closely watching the Grade 10 student’s case, which has led to a spate of media reports of similar incidents.
Akhtar, who got involved in TakeBacktheTech campaign launched in 2009, has been "blogging, tweeting, (and) writing articles in local tech magazines on safe and secure use of ICTs (information and communication technology)". She also offers help and guidance to cyber crime victims through the use of the same ICTs.
Authorities and activists like Akhtar may have their hands full for years to come. Mobile phones have already reached the most remote villages in Pakistan, where there are now 100 million mobile phone users, says the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority. There are also 18 million Internet users so far in this country of 175 million people. 

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