Ask any millennial what helped them survive the lockdown. and the answer would most certainly be internet. Browsing through unlimited content on social networking sites posted by people from across the globe helped people stay busy. People are able to work from home, set virtual official meetings, coordinate with their colleagues, and complete their assignments using the internet.
Many businesses were able to survive the nation-wide lockdown only because of the internet. Schools have been conducting online classes, increasing digital footprints of both teachers and students. As per the ratings agency CRISIL, data usage has gone up 25-30% since the national lockdown began on 25th March 2020.
What has also increased along with data consumption is the number of cybercrime cases against women. According to National Commission for Women (NCW) data, 54 cybercrime complaints were received online in April in comparison to 37 complaints, received online and by post, in March and 21 complaints in February. Many cyber experts believe this is just the “tip of the iceberg”.
With horrific examples such as ‘Bois Locker Room’, one needs to understand the complexity of cyberspace that operates in a world that accepts and promotes sexual violence, toxic masculinity and rape culture upfront. In India, the patriarchal system is the base for such crimes — women’s bodies are considered a temple of honor and their chastity is linked to the pride of family. This acceptance of women’s bodies as the moral compass makes them an easy target and cyber criminals have started taking advantage of it.
Even in these horrific times, when the world is fighting a deadly pandemic, cyber criminals are targeting women and girls who have to be present online to work, study or simply catch up with their friends and relatives. In an interview with PTI, Akancha Srivastava, founder of the Akancha Foundation that works for education and empowerment of people by imparting knowledge on cyber safety, said that they received 412 genuine complaints of cyber abuse between 25th March and 25th April 2020. “Out of these, as many as 396 complaints were serious ones from women, (and these) ranged from abuse, indecent exposure, unsolicited obscene pictures, threats, malicious emails claiming their account was hacked, ransom demands, blackmail and more,” she said.
Efforts of the Central and State governments are also insufficient in ensuring safety of women in both real and virtual space. In the lockdown, crimes against women in public spaces have decreased, but the increase in cases of domestic violence and cybercrime is worrisome. It was well before the lockdown that cybercrimes against women, at par with the crimes happening against them in the real space, had started creating challenges before the police. Incidents of cyber bullying, hacking and other cybercrimes against women are continuously increasing in other States of the country, including the newly-formed Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
According to a report by The Hindu Businessline, the police in J&K has received several complaints of usage of fake identities on social media to attack women. In some cases, men have morphed images and threatened women. The Superintendent of Cyber Police Tahir Ashraf, in the same report, said that these are the few cases that have been reported, while there are many women who don’t want to make official complaints, fearing stigma. His remarks clearly hinted towards the possibility of cybercrimes against women going unreported, making it difficult to help women in the Valley.
While the ‘basic right’ of walking fearless in public spaces has not yet been guaranteed to women in our country, the fear of being bullied, harassed and threatened in the online arena has already taken over. Criminals, in most cases, are far ahead of the security agencies, making it difficult to trace and catch them as the cases increase every year.
According to a National Crime Records Bureau report in 2017, there were “21,796 cybercrimes in the country in 2017, of which 1,460 were of sexual exploitation”. The report further highlights that “the most number of sexually-motivated cybercrimes were committed in Maharashtra, with 462 of the 1,460 such cases being registered in the state, followed by Assam with 217 cases. Of the 462 sexual exploitation cybercrime cases in Maharashtra, Mumbai accounted for 204 of them.”
In the more recent report of 2018 released by the NCRB, a total number of 6,030 cases of cybercrime against women have been registered in the country. The situation is appalling in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal where the incidence of cybercrime against women has steadily increased. These States have reported cases in hundreds and thousands, which is petrifying to say the least. One can only imagine the kind of mental torture such cybercrimes inflict on the victims.
Seeing the increasing number of cybercrimes against women, it is only right to demand more stringent laws to tackle the situation. Although India has enacted IT Act 2000 to combat cybercrimes, according to advocate Vardhan Gupta, who practices in Delhi High Court, the provisions of the Act are gender-neutral and lack proper enforcement by authorities. He also believes that clamour for a specific Act should instead be met by an amendment of the IT Act in light of the advent of social media.
In 2019, based on the recommendations of an expert group, Cyber Crime against Women and Children (CCPWC) scheme was launched by the government. This scheme, among other provisions, emphasises on awareness creation of the dos and don’ts of cybercrime among citizens as a proactive mitigation initiative. It also aims at introducing awareness about cybercrime and cyber hygiene as a component of school curriculum at early stages of education.
It is unfortunate that despite the efforts of our government, along with measures taken by non-government organisations to ensure safety of women in cyberspace, we are seeing an upsurge in cybercrimes against them. Cyberspace has undoubtedly provided a platform to millions of people where they are free to express themselves but for women, especially in patriarchal societies, it’s different. For them, the threats of the real world have seeped into their cyberspace, targeting their right to freedom. This is the time when our policy-makers should act and contain this ‘virus’ of the cyberspace before it’s too late!
(The article has been written by Shalu Agarwal from Meerut under Sanjoy Ghose Media Fellowship 2019-20)