DRF report reveals complaints rose by 189 percent in March, April
he outbreak of COVID 19 has affected almost every aspect of our life and changed things altogether. People have confined themselves indoors and are using technology to connect with others, perform tasks online and even doing businesses on Internet. During the pandemic, the traffic in cyberspace has increased considerably, bringing a major change in people’s lifestyle.
No doubt technology has been a great support in times when physical movement and contact are not as frequent as before, but it’s also a fact that its irresponsible use has a downside too. Cyber harassment is just one example of what people, especially women, have to face online. The instance is high in countries where the official mechanisms to fight this menace are weak or there is a shortage of human resource to tackle it. Legislation is also a major tool to provide a framework to tackle these crimes provided the implementation part is up to the mark.
Pakistan is also seeing a surge in cyber harassment cases and shortage of resources and manpower to handle these. It has been observed that the instance has increased during the pandemic and on the other hand the physical distancing and stay home policies have made it difficult for the complainants to visit concerned offices, file complaints and follow up with the developments related to investigations. The officials, especially those from the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), are also not readily accessible because of the pandemic-related reasons.
The assertion about the surge in the number of cyber harassment cases is supported by the policy brief “COVID 19 and Cyber Harassment” released by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) - a non-for-profit organization working on digital freedom and cyber security. The brief points out that as compared to January and February, March and April saw an increase of 189 per cent in complaints registered with DRF’s Cyber Harassment Helpline. In terms of numbers a total of 136 complaints were received during the months of March and April compared to 47 in the prior two month in January and February. The first case of COVID 19 was confirmed in Pakistan on February 26.
The breakup of this figure shows the complaints about defamation were four per cent, hate speech one per cent, fake profiles four per cent, blackmailing 18 per cent, unsolicited contact 17 per cent, non-consensual 18 per cent contact, threat 13 per cent threat and phishing seven percent. The majority of the complaints came from Punjab primarily Lahore and the complainants belonged to age group between 20 and 25 years. DRF refers complaints to FIA or escalate their complaint with the social media companies, either way, both have their own means of verification. The foundation as an intermediary catalyzes the process and tries to provide help to all the victims of harassment.
As Pakistan entered its lockdown in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, the organisation feared there would be an increase in cyber-harassment cases as well as cyber attacks in general, says Nighat Dad, Executive Director, DRF. To explore this possibility, she says, they analyzed the data from their Cyber Harassment Helpline from the months selected for the study and reached these conclusions.
Dad says the surge in cyber-harassment cases could be attributed to limitations on victim’s access to law enforcement and other resources due to lockdown which also made lodging of complaints difficult and perpetrators took advantage of it. The spike can also be attributed to the increased internet usage for work, school, and social activities that have made users with limited digital knowledge vulnerable hence disproportionally affecting women and girls, she adds.
A prominent feature of the brief, no doubt, is that it carries recommendations for relevant stakeholders regarding the handling of cyber harassment cases during the pandemic and precautions that are required. The recommendations have been developed over the years with the help of stakeholders, policymakers, digital experts, and complainants, also keeping in view the data and trends observed in the complaints received at the helpline.
For example, these cover issues of the FIA’s accessibility especially during the pandemic, and also how technology needs to be used hand in hand while dealing with harassment cases, like allowing for video testimonies etc. The recommendations also include streamlining the online complaints system to ensure that complaints can be lodged and case updates obtained virtually, ensuring social distancing and minimizing physical contact in the reporting and investigation process, inclusion of cybercrime laws, internet governance etc in the curriculum of judiciary and law enforcement, gender sensitization of law enforcement, prosecutors, court staff etc in order to handle cases relating to online violence with effectiveness.
The need for developing greater technical expertise for digital forensics and investigation and a case management system has also been suggested. With the help of the latter, the brief says, the complainants would be able to track and receive updates periodically on the status of their cases through an online system.
Shahid Ghani, a Lahore-based lawyer, endorses these recommendations and says that the general awareness about cybercrime and cyber harassment needs to be increased at different levels. It would be good to teach it comprehensively to the law students, personnel of the law enforcement authorities, students in colleges and universities and the common citizens who might commit cybercrime without evening knowing that it is prohibited under the law, he adds. Ghani points out that the case management system is badly needed because it has always been very difficult for the complainants to get the updates on their cases. “In times of pandemic it becomes more relevant.”
Some other recommendations mentioned in the DRF brief include performance review of investigators and prosecutors in these cases, establishment of channels of communication between police stations and cybercrime stations to ensure that cases can be easily transferred and there is clarity as to where a particular case should be registered, investigated and prosecuted, promulgation of data protection legislation to protect the fundamental right to privacy of citizens. More collaboration with the civil society organizations has been suggested through public-private partnerships to ensure that public institutions work collaboratively.
Dad adds they have a working relationship with the FIA, and they work with them to escalate certain cases that they get on their cyber harassment helpline. “We do work with them to improve their gender sensitization etc. When it comes to the figures we recently released, we have heard back from the FIA in terms of how helpline and cyber crime wing can work together while they received our recommendations.”
She points out that the cyber crime wing is also disseminating information on social media and is quite active in responding to some of blackmailing over intimate images cases. However, she says, they strongly feel there is an urgent need to allocate immense resources and will at the cyber crime wings to enable them to address the cases of activists, women human rights defenders, journalists and religious minorities.