Cyber Harassment Complaints in Pakistan up by 189% During Lockdown

A new report by the Cyber Harassment Helpline of Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) has found there has been an increase of 189% in complaints during the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, reported The News.

In the report titled ‘COVID-19 and Cyber Harassment’ issued by the DRF, a 189% increase in complaints registered with the Cyber Harassment Helpline could be seen as compared to January and February. Around 74% of the cases in March and April were reported by women, 19% by men and 5% by gender non-binary persons.

Interestingly, when the lockdown was enforced in March, the helpline toll-free number was closed for a specific period of time for the protection of employees. This massive increase in recorded complaints came through email and other social media forums.

DRF is an NGO that works towards equal internet rights for all in Pakistan, as well as advocating for a safe internet for all people, especially women. Towards that end, the foundation said it has a ‘Cyber Harassment Helpline’ that received calls from people across Pakistan who are harassed and/or bullied online.

The policy brief analyses data from Cyber Harassment Helpline from March and April 2020 and compared it to the data from January and February 2020, to compare how cases have grown during the lockdown. The analysis also includes a list of recommendations for concerned stakeholders.

The brief said that the forms of gendered violence, largely directed at women in the digital sphere, usually include sexual harassment, surveillance, unauthorised use and dissemination of personal data, and manipulation of personal information including images and videos.

It added that this form of violence acts as a significant barrier to women’s expression of themselves as well as meaningful engagement with the internet. A majority of the cases that the DRF’s cyber harassment helpline received digitally during lockdown (April and May) pertained to blackmailing through non-consensual sharing of information, intimate pictures and videos.

The brief recommended that the government streamline the online complaints system to ensure that complaints can be lodged and case updates can be obtained virtually, ensuring social distancing and minimizing physical contact in the reporting and investigation process. 

Furthermore, it urged the government for explicit and public SOPs for the operations of cybercrime wings to ensure that complainants can follow required procedures effectively.

The paper also suggested the inclusion of cybercrime laws, internet governance, digital forensics and digital rights into the curriculum of the judiciary and law enforcement and gender sensitisation for law enforcement, prosecutors, court staff and judges to handle cases relating to online violence with effectiveness, sensitivity and an understanding of the gendered risks that women and gender minorities face online.

It also recommended adopting technology and video-based testimony to ensure timely hearing of cases by courts while ensuring public health and safety protocols during the pandemic and developing a mechanism to deal with cases in foreign jurisdictions, i.e. cases where: either the accused or the complainant is located outside Pakistan. At this stage, Pakistan is not a signatory to the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, which sets up a regime for international cooperation on cybercrime.

The brief also highlighted the importance of developing a Rapid Response Cell which can respond to urgent cases where leaked information can harm personal safety or cause immediate reputational harm besides establishing a rapid response cell, operational 24/7, in addition to the regular operations of the NR3C.

The paper stressed for greater technical expertise for digital forensics and investigation and case management system in place in the relevant wings. It also calls for developing clear, accessible and publicly available Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) on privacy, confidentiality, and protection of evidentiary data and identity of the complainants at FIA.

The policy brief further recommended performance review of investigators and prosecutors, effective communication between police stations and cybercrime stations, data protection legislation and better collaboration between the government and the civil society organisations working on cybersecurity issues.

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