Online sexual extortion: Why can’t we protect the most vulnerable?
We might commonly perceive cyber-security as a high-profile issue concerning governments and large corporations. The average teenage Internet user, however, is the easiest target for cyber-crimes, especially in Bangladesh, where topics of sex and sexuality remain rock-solid taboos. Teenagers—intending to hide their relationships from their parents—heavily rely on internet security to share intimate images of each other, exchange sexual texts, etc. They thereby generate the target-rich environment for "sextortion"—a serious crime where a perpetrator threatens to distribute the victims' private and sensitive material unless they hand over money.
In many parts of the world, statistics don't exist regarding this prevalent intersection of sexual violence and cyber-crimes, but letting the invisibility of this understudied concept fool ourselves would be a huge mistake as fast-moving hackers—who tend to be prolific repeat players—are not going anywhere.
This month, I came across a deluge of sextortion cases, where hackers were "phishing" into girls' Facebook accounts, and blackmailing their boyfriends for Tk 15,000 through bKash. When some victims didn't deliver the cash on time, the hackers published intimate photos and videos shared between young couples, tainting their lives with social humiliation and everlasting trauma.
Two victims among these recent cases called police stations, BTRC, and 999 (national emergency helpline)—all efforts that proved unsuccessful. To be completely candid, I feel futile witnessing these muddled cases unsnarl the brutal reality check that there isn't a way to save young adults the moment of victimising incidents. At the same time, I acknowledge that cyber-crimes are more difficult to solve, that there is less clarity when it comes to detecting a perpetrator. Cyber Cell police commissioner Mishuk Chakma, informed me that these hackers, who they call "scammers," are generally professional, shrewd criminals, so it takes time to identify and locate them.
Some of the victims reached out to Bangladesh Cyber & Legal Center (BCLC)—a law firm that specialises in dealing with cyber-security—but faced bureaucratic barriers in stopping the hacker on the spot due to the Code for Criminal Procedure requiring police, rather than lawyers, to carry out digital forensics only after filing a GD or an FIR. According to Md Saimum Reza Talukder, the co-founder of BCLC, "Bangladesh needs an independent public prosecution service, which will deal with digital forensics instantly after a cyber-crime incident occurs, with the help of law enforcement agencies." But I was under the impression that if victims manage to navigate the garbled process—file a GD or launch a formal legal case through FIR—a solution can be achieved. Alas, I learned about yet another constraint for victims: if sextortion cases end up in court, they will also be punished for the crimes committed against them.
Basically, sextortionist scammers will be penalised under Digital Security Act 2018, while the victims will be penalised under Pornography Control Act 2012. Under Section 8(1), "Any act capturing video or still pictures of sexual intercourse or behaviour exposing sexual sensation, with or without the consent of parties, who are in sexual interaction, will be punishable with a maximum imprisonment of 8 years and 2 lakh taka fine." Put another way, sharing intimate images is prohibited in Bangladesh on all accounts, regardless of age. The absence of considering the vulnerability of children also applies to cases of online grooming (perpetrators manipulate children to meet their illegal sexual objectives). The illogical make-up of these laws contradicts the United Nations' Child Rights Convention (CRC) that requires states to safeguard children from all forms of sexual violence. As such, the most pressing challenge for officials in Bangladesh is to demarcate between protection and control, with special focus on how pornography can be restricted without jeopardising victims' rights to be protected from debilitating crimes that ensnare them in misery.
One constructive solution does exist, however. The most recent Optional Protocol to the CRC, the OP3 on a communications procedure, allows minors to file a direct complaint to the UN, when their national legal system cannot guarantee remedy. Regarding this development, a UNICEF study titled "Victims are not virtual: Situation assessment of online child sexual exploitation in South Asia," published in 2016, stated: "OP3 is a potential remedy for children in countries where the legal system is prohibitively slow (such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) or where there are other barriers to accessing justice." The Bangladesh government is yet to ratify the OP3.
Nevertheless, it's hard not to notice that disproportionate laws are rooted in the widespread culture of victim-blaming, which is frankly embarrassing. The UNICEF study on South Asia also mentioned, "Social norms related to the value of the girl's virginity and the 'honour' of her family, put boys and men in a position of power due to the extreme social consequences for the girl if her sexualized photos are distributed online." Consequently, anecdotal evidence found in the study indicated that, "Sexual extortion… seems to overwhelmingly be perpetrated by boys and men against girls." Likewise, the police commissioner I spoke to informed me that 70 percent of cyber-crime victims are women and children between 15-25 years of age, and ironically most of the perpetrators are young men between 17-25 years.
It is impossible to ignore, therefore, the gender discrimination that underlines sextortion crimes. So, relevant legal provisions should be developed in a manner that systematically values the routine targeting of women as well. The Nari O Shishu Nirjaton Daman Ain 2000 (Women and Children Repression Prevention Act) defines various forms of assault, but lacks one for online sexual violence. In light of the sheer volume of endangering behaviour towards these two vulnerable groups in digital spaces, a proper mechanism should be considered to address the counterproductive elements of the Pornography Control Act 2012. It is also imperative that staff working for the National Helpline for Violence Against Women and Children (109) be trained to handle cyber-crimes.
As with most other crimes, long-term solutions unfold with education and public awareness. Some leaders of the Dhaka University Central Student Union (DUCSU) organised an awareness campaign on cyber-safety and 999 in women's halls on the week of July 16, but were unsuccessful due to the non-cooperation of their general secretary and provost of each hall, namely Bangladesh-Kuwait Friendship Hall and Begum Rokeya Hall, who refused to allow the events, stating they had "internal problems."
When I detailed Bangladesh's current situation of online sexual violence to Eva Galperin, Director of Cybersecurity and the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the US, in a recent interview, she commented, "The way to counter sextortion cases is to dismantle the patriarchy, and if it was possible to attain that directly, I would've been using all my time to do that instead." She revealed that in the US, "Many female celebrities have been subjected to sextortion in the past, but instead resisted being threatened by publishing the material themselves because there is no shame in someone's body; it is shameful to threaten people by demonising their personal lives." Realistically, this sort of response is light years away from becoming textbook guidelines on handling sextortion in the conservative society of Bangladesh. In the meantime, as urgent prevention is more viable than cure, Galperin highly recommends "every Facebook user to religiously enable the two-factor authentication in order to defend their accounts from the malicious guile of our fellow human beings."
Ramisa Rob is a master's candidate in New York University.
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