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Watch out, you’re online

By: Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

The internet initially seemed like a blessing, but the hazard it’s causing to the lives of innocent girls is something that can’t be neglected. You! Takes a look at the increasing rise in cyber crimes against women…

Rushna is a student of a leading institute of management sciences in Pakistan. Life was easy and free of worries for her till the day she received the most shocking news of her life. A close friend told her that her photograph was placed on a facebook page created in the name of her institution but filled with highly objectionable content. The poor girl was portrayed as a call girl on the page and the unknown person behind this episode had vowed to come up with a porn video of her in days to follow.

She is not the only victim of this cyber crime as one may call it; a large number of her female class fellows, seniors and juniors have also been made the target of this negative campaign. The creators of the page have presumably lifted their photographs from their facebook pages, blog sites and other online fora and edited them to suit their purpose.

There are video clips as well which have been placed after audio dubbing and adding vulgar songs and abusive language to the file. The page still exists despite the fact that a large number of complaints have been filed with the facebook administration. On the other hand, the page has one 1,321 likes till the filing of this report and the number is increasing day by day.

Similarly, there are endless examples of fake profiles of innocent Pakistani girls on facebook and the operators of these pages add content of all types in their names. This has brought immense embarrassment to the victims as the names, pictures and contacts on the page are real. In a couple of cases, the operators of such pages even invited men, on behalf of the girls they were posing as, to meet them at places they were supposed to visit. The fact that they were being closely watched and followed dawned upon those girls when the men approached them claiming they had been in contact for long.

All these cases may be unique in terms of events that unfolded but are common on one count – none of the victims could get their fake accounts removed even after sending several complaints to the facebook administration.

The incidents referred above, fall in the ambit of cyber stalking which by definition is an act that includes (repeatedly) sending threats or false accusations via email or mobile phone, making threatening or false posts on websites, stealing a person’s identity or data or spying and monitoring a person’s computer and internet use. Sometimes the threats can escalate into physical spaces.

Like everywhere else in the world, young Pakistani girls and women are mostly vulnerable to this and the incidents are rising with the increase in number of internet users and popularity of IT culture. While the photographs of girls, partying and dancing in pubs, in the West can go unnoticed, a video of Pakistani girls dancing at a family function can bring death sentence to them if it goes viral. Yes, the reference here is to the incident that occurred in Kohistan earlier in the year. Regardless of whether the girls were punished or not, it’s a fact that the local elders took the issue very seriously and all those filmed in the video had to go into hiding to save their lives. The video was transmitted without the knowledge of those filmed in it.

The debate here is that whether the supporters of freedom of information should allow risking the lives, reputation and future of women on this pretext or should they call for some restraint depending on the cultural sensitivities of the population in question.

Regarding this issue You! spoke to Shahzad Ahmed, Country Director, Bytes for All (B4A), which is a global organisation, working for human rights issues related to the use of information and communication technologies (ICT). It also runs a programme ‘Take Back the Tech’ which is a collaborative campaign to reclaim ICT to end violence against women (VAW).

The campaign calls on all ICT users – especially women and girls – to take control of technology and strategically use any ICT platform at hand (mobile phones, instant messengers, blogs, websites, digital cameras, email, podcasts and more) for activism against gender-based violence.

“The most common form of cyber stalking faced by young girls and women in Pakistan is on social networking websites and mobile phones. Girls usually do not understand the safe use of social networks and mobile phones and resultantly get into trouble. For instance, girls will upload their family or private household pictures online in the quest to share them with their friends. They do not realise that not only the social network company but several predators are out there, harvesting such pictures for their own negative use,” explains Shahzad.

According to Shahzad, there are no cyber crime laws to protect women and girls in Pakistan. There is a complain mechanism for mobiles at Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and for internet related issues at National Response Centre for Cyber crimes. However, when you send a complaint to them, they say that since there is no law, we cannot do much about it.

When there are no recourses to follow, the vulnerable lot has to adopt mechanisms of self-defence. “This is the principle which B4A follows, to build the capacity of women and young girls on the access to technology, use of technology and their digital security, online safety and privacy,” states Shahzad.

For this particular purpose, several training workshops have been conducted throughout the country. B4A in Pakistan especially targets youth in colleges and universities from Gilgit to Gawadar and Khyber to Karachi to give them digital tools, tips and tricks to be safe online. This also includes how to be safe from cyber stalking and other perils of digital age. Currently, they are also developing video tutorials in Urdu and different local languages precisely for women and girls so that they can learn how to be safe online while sitting at home.

Bytes for All also pledges any kind of legal or moral support to women facing online violence. “In this regard we have conducted one on one counselling sessions for girls to minimise the damage caused to the reputation of the female survivors of cyber stalking,” adds Shahzad.

However, one thing that makes matters worse is the immense difficulty one faces to get immediate redressal from any of the social network websites. The main reasons are that reporting mechanism is not known to many people, there are no local offices of these companies in Pakistan, where you can reach out and lodge a complaint as these companies are data mining companies and they make profits out of our data, hence, they are reluctant at times as they do not have any cultural context or sensitivity of a country like ours. This point needs to be highlighted at the highest possible level and these companies sensitised on the issue. The task may be difficult but not impossible.

“The responsibility of protecting sensitive data also falls on male members of the society and it’s not only the women who should be expected to be extremely careful when they are online,” says Fazeelat Chauhan, who deals in used mobile handsets. “People needlessly store pictures and videos of family members in their mobile handsets and memory cards inserted in them. This data becomes public if such handsets are lost or they fall in the hands of mobile phone snatchers.

“Whenever I buy a used mobile I ask the genuine owner to delete all the personal data from it,” he concludes.

The fact is that we have a privacy level next to zero. All one can do is take personal precautionary measures to avoid falling in the hands of the internet predators.

Here is a module of B4A training which focuses on how women can minimise the chances of falling prey to the cyber stalkers.

Be careful what personal information you share online including in email, on social networking sites like facebook and Twitter and chat rooms. It is very easy to glean information about where you live, the places you love to go to in your area and the people you care about from posts and pictures.

Create a different email account for registering in social networking sites and other online spaces. It will help avoid spam and your personal email won’t be revealed if the online service doesn’t have a good privacy practice.

Do not feel obligated to fill out all fields when registering online or provide identifying information such as birthdates and place in required fields. sIn your online user profile, use a photo that doesn’t identify you or your location, so you can’t be recognised.

‑Consider using a name that is not your real name or a nickname as your email name, screen name or user ID. And try not to use common dates such as your birthday as the digits in your email name or password. Instead, pick a name that is gender- and age-neutral. Treat your email and/or internet account like you would your credit card, ID or passport number – very carefully.

If you are breaking up with an intimate partner- especially if they are abusive, troubled, angry or difficult – reset every single password on all of your accounts, from email and social networking accounts to bank accounts, to something they cannot guess.

‑Services such as Facebook change their privacy policy all the time, so it is a good idea to check your privacy settings to make sure you are sharing the information you want to share with the people you trust and not the general internet public. Some sites have options for you to test how your profile is being viewed by others – test and make sure you only reveal what is absolutely necessary.

‑What information are family and friends posting about you? Let them know your concerns about privacy and help them learn better privacy settings.

‑Do an internet search of your name and monitor where you appear online. If you find unauthorised info about yourself online, contact the website moderator to request its removal. To avoid linking your name to your IP address, try doing these searches from a cybercafe or somewhere that is not your home computer.

‑Make sure that your internet service provider (ISP), mobile phone service, instant messenger (called internet relay chat, or IRC in some terms of service) network and other services you use has an acceptable privacy policy that prohibits cyber stalking. If they have none, suggest they create one and/or switch to a provider that is more responsive to user privacy concerns and complaints.

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