Cybercrimes target both men and women, but women are especially vulnerable to certain types of cybercrime. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau, as provided in the Lok Sabha, reveals that 10,730 cybercrimes against women were registered in 2021, including cyber blackmail, cyber pornography, cyber stalking, cyber bullying, defamation or morphing, and fake profiles.
The actual details on cybercrimes against women are likely to be far greater in number and variety as many are not reported, but this data provides a snapshot of the grim reality that women face in cyberspace. Such cybercrimes may occur even on a large scale, as we witnessed in the case of the Bulli Bai app where women were subject to an online pseudo auction to cause humiliation.
Women can be blackmailed through photos and videos they consensually shared with someone they trusted who now threatens to distribute them. Blackmailers often gain the trust of the victim through an online romance scams. It is easy to say that women shouldn’t form such relationships, but such statements amount to victim blaming. Mate-seeking is natural, and sharing intimate content between consenting adults is not illegal. Blackmail is illegal, but the social stigma surrounding sharing personal content enables such blackmail.
Cyberstalking can be performed directly, through unsolicited messages, or surreptitiously, by installing stalking apps on the victim’s device. The latter requires access to the device and indicates the woman is being stalked by someone she trusts or who has power over her, which increases the difficulty in acting against the stalker.
Cyber or revenge pornography may occur either through blackmail, as discussed above, where the perpetrator has access to the victim’s sexual content, or through the editing of photos or videos where the victim’s face is superimposed on pornographic content from another source. The rise of AI-generated deep fakes allows attackers to create convincing fake content with ease, as evidenced by the Telegram bot which generated nude images based on photos obtained from social media.
Cyber bullying involves many of the same tactics and motives used to bully women in the physical world. Such bullying can be particularly vicious when carried out by the victim’s peers in an academic setting as the victim must attend classes and cannot avoid her bullies. Cyber bullying can have severe consequences and some victims have killed themselves to escape relentless bullying on pervasive digital channels.
Cyber spying is another form of cyberattack used to target women, often with the goal of obtaining personal photos and videos. Cyber spying may involve hacking the victim’s device to purloin personal content or hacking her webcam to observe her without her knowledge. Women are also at risk of cyber spying when they hand over their devices to a service centre without first deleting or encrypting their personal data.
Women may also be targeted on social media, either by creating fake profiles using their photos and other personal information or by hacking their existing social media accounts to distribute fake content about them to their followers.
This partial list of ways in which women are attacked in cyberspace may sound dystopian and even hopeless, so let us also examine ways in which women may defend themselves. The first step is to practise cyber hygiene. Passwords and other credentials should never be shared with anyone. Photos and videos should be shared with others only after the relationship has stood the test of time. A mobile phone should be used only as a phone, and not be used to create and store intimate content. Limited information should be shared on social media; all posts should employ privacy settings that restrict their audience to a trusted social circle, especially for photos and videos to prevent them from being used to generate deep fakes; only those who are known to the social media user in real life should be added as friends and contacts; accounts should be accessed through strong passwords and multi-factor authentication should be enabled where available; accounts should be deleted if not used, to prevent account takeover.
Good antivirus must be installed on all devices, even mobile phones, to prevent the installation of malicious apps used to spy on and steal from the victim. Such personal cybersecurity software may also prevent webcam spying and provide additional protection for photos, documents, and identity.
These are preventive measures but sometimes a cure is required if an attack is successful. Cybercrimes may be reported to the police and on www.cybercrime.gov.in, which allows anonymous reporting. Women do face challenges in reporting cybercrime as they are often blamed for becoming victims and it is therefore up to us, as a society, to stop blaming and shaming and instead focus on what we can do to help and support female victims of cybercrime to ensure the digital world becomes a just and equitable place for women.
(The author is Mr. Kesavardhanan J, Founder & President, K7 Computing, and the views expressed in this article are his own)