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Activists in Balochistan Face a New Threat: Cyber Harassment

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Activists in Balochistan Face a New Threat: Cyber Harassment

Women are especially vulnerable to online harassment and defamation, despite laws in place to protect against such crimes.

Activists in Balochistan Face a New Threat: Cyber Harassment
Credit: Depositphotos

Naheema Zehri, 26, belongs to a tribal society from Khuzdar, Balochistan and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree from Sardar Bahadur Khan Women University in Quetta. Her feminist activism came to light when she campaigned for and participated in the Women Azadi March in Quetta in late 2019 via her social media.

Now, however, Zehri sits alone in her home, still reeling from the events of last week. A breach of her online privacy brought her attempts at feminist activism and mobilization in Pakistan to a despairing halt. A fake Instagram account operating under her name and using her data was being used to threaten her into silence. She was left with no option but to suspend her activism for the women of Balochistan, the demographic with the highest mortality rate in the world. She has since de-escalated her online presence and stayed at home.

Zehri is visibly distressed as she recalls what happened. “My colleague sent me the screenshots of the fake Twitter and Instagram accounts that were operating under my name, and I immediately checked to see if this was true.”

As it turns out, it was. Fake social media accounts operating under her name were posting content that could land her in trouble. Pictures of her home, her children, and public events with her friends and family, which she had posted on social media, had been manipulated and reposted in an attempt to defame her.

“This could have caused me serious harm, and I was not in a position to discuss it with my family. I was scared of the aftermath,” says Zehri.

Pakistan’s Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act actually addresses such concerns. Chapter 2, section 20 is devoted to “electronic forgery”:

Whoever interferes with or uses any information system, device or data with the intent to cause damage or injury to the public or to any person, or to make any illegal claim or title or to cause any person to part with property or to enter into any express or implied contract, or with intent to commit fraud by any input, alteration, deletion, or suppression of data, resulting in unauthentic data with the intent that it be considered or acted upon for legal purposes as if it were authentic, regardless of the fact that the data is directly readable and intelligible or not, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description, or a term which may extend to three years, or with fine which may extend to two hundred and fifty thousand rupees or with both.

However, few Pakistanis are aware of the legal framework regarding cyber crimes, or how to avail themselves of help.

Zehri was no exception. Unaware of the options available to her in case of a cyber threat or online harassment, she did not think that lodging an online application to the Cyber Crime Cell was an option, let alone know how to go about it. Eventually Zehri got access to the contact information of someone at the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), whom she decided to approach for help.

“I found the contact of Director General Arsalan Durrani and requested for his official support in this regard. I did not lodge an online application to register my case. I did not know the proper procedure and thought it would be a long process.”

For a woman from Balochistan, a deeply patriarchal society that is itself marginalized in the state of Pakistan, this episode could have been life-threatening. Thus, Zehri requested the FIA to address her concern urgently.

As she tells it, “The FIA’s response to the urgency of the matter was very positive; they immediately launched a legal inquiry into the matter and reported the fake account to Twitter on my request.”

She was advised by the FIA to visit their office the following day. However, that could have proven problematic for her: If her family were to find out about the situation, it was likely that they would discontinue her education. Zehri hoped that reporting the account would be enough to get her out of the mess.

Lack of digital rights awareness in Balochistan means that many citizens do not know the avenues available to them in case of cyber harassment, making them vulnerable in an increasingly digital world.

Meerwais Mashwani, 24, is another victim of cyber crime in Balochistan. A student of mass communication at University of Balochistan, Mashwani established his Facebook page, Balochistan TV, in 2019, where he provided updates about the political developments, the healthcare sector of the province, and the state of women’s education. His stories were digital features attempting to highlight various unheard stories from across the province. The page garnered decent engagement with 11,000 likes and 13,000 followers before it was hacked.

“The page was monitored by two admins,” Mashwani says. “The other was my colleague, who was a regular contributor to the page. One day I was unable to login to Facebook through my mobile application. Underneath the error it stated the page did not belong to me any longer.”

Mashwani later realized that alongside his Facebook page, he had also lost control of his personal Facebook account. This loss of data and audience came, understandably, as great shock. He did not, however, report this to the FIA.

“I was very proud of the audience I had built, and was not expecting all of it to come tumbling down like this. I did not lodge a legal complaint, nor did I visit the FIA’s office, I was not aware I had those options. I was too gutted about all of it,” said Mashwani.

Not only was Mashwani unable to trace who hacked his account and why, but the incident also discouraged him from relying on social media.

“The next day a post appeared on the page under my name that read, ‘I Meerwaise Mashwani will be coming with new business planning to this platform. I am happy to hold your trust and adoration. Thanks to all well wishers.’ I found some pictures had been removed as well,” says Mashwani.

But he is feeling more empowered these days. “I recently participated in a week-long digital training session that was conducted by the Digital Rights Foundation in collaboration with the University of Balochistan,” Mashwani says. “The seminar was a great learning experience. I got to know about issues of digital security, online privacy bills, and the Pakistani laws regarding digital spaces especially the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (PECA).”

The Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) is a digital rights watchdog working on online privacy of social media users and digital security in Pakistan. It is a leading nonpartisan organization active in ensuring digital safety of citizens since 2012, and is one of the civil society groups partnering with Facebook to address cyber harassment and revenge porn. Since its creation, the DRF has set up a Cyber Harassment Helpline, which receives an average of 146 calls per month. In 2019 alone, the helpline got a total of 2,023 complaints.

Mashwani says that he feels much more confident about using social media now that he is aware of the avenues available to him in case such a situation arises again. “The two-step security should keep my data safer,” he says, hopeful of re-establishing his Facebook page.

Mashwani’s case, however, was nothing extraordinary in Balochistan where online harassment and cyber crimes remain rampant due to lack of awareness regarding digital rights.

Another such case is that of Sobia, a vlogger from Balochistan, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. Her vlogs, which have an audience of a hundred thousand followers on Facebook, cover Baloch culture, issues of climate change, and education and health in the province. Sobia appears in these vlogs with her face covered, to keep in line with the culture of the region. That anonymity, however, has now caused problems.

Since anonymity makes it difficult to visually gauge the content of Sobia’s videos, the message can be easily manipulated. For over a month now, a Facebook page with a similar name has been re-uploading her videos with different voiceovers. These fake voiceovers are sexual in nature, a cause of a great concern for a woman coming from a deeply conservative society.

“In a patriarchal society like ours, it is already difficult for women to step into public spaces for work, to then have someone anonymous defame you like this, makes it even worse,” she says, perturbed, “I was producing such good content, I did not expect this to happen.”

Sobia, however, did not lose hope. She immediately filed a complaint with the FIA and visited their office the next day.

“I did my best to put a stop to this even though I was extremely stressed,” she says, “I asked the FIA to take urgent action against whoever was behind that account. The officers have been cooperative and are trying to trace the culprit.”

“Women are already vulnerable in Balochistan, and incidents like these in online spaces result in added restrictions in our offline lives,” she adds. “We need equality in both these spaces, as well as safe working environments. The government of Pakistan needs to ensure online safety for women.”

The FIA managed to locate the administrator of the Facebook page maligning Sobia within three days but were unable to make any arrests due to inadequate fiscal and logistical support. There simply is not enough manpower or technology available to the FIA to monitor far-flung areas of the province. The content from the page, however, has been taken down.

Adnan Amir, an expert on digital security offers some suggestions for bolstering online security in Balochistan. (or anywhere, for that matter): “To secure social media platforms, the users should know about the technical support provided by the platform itself such as, two factor authentication. The users should also be aware of the need for strong passwords to protect them from phishing, and most importantly should have a backup email.”

“There is a need for training and workshops as part of a digital rights awareness campaign across Balochistan, which should provide detailed guidelines regarding PECA’s implementation,” Adnan adds.

In early 2002, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in Islamabad formed a specialized wing for investigating crimes related to Information and Communication Technology (ICT). This wing is commonly known as the National Response Center for Cyber Crimes (NR3C). NR3C has 15 stations across the country that look into matters related to digital security.

According to Arsalan Durrani, the director general of FIA Cyber Cell Balochistan, they have “a three step process for the complaint registration. The first is a soft formatted form available online on the digital site of Cyber Crimes Cell (FIA) across the county on all its 15 stations. Second, the complainant can make a detailed telephone call to the FIA complaint receiver. The claimant can even make an in-person visit to the office to register their complaint.”

According to the biannual report published by Digital Rights Foundation, since PECA has been put into effect, FIA Cyber Crimes Cell Balochistan has registered 6,790 cases, most of which were submitted in-person or over a phone call. Of those, 5,080 cases resulted in legal proceedings, out of which only 290 are still pending. The Cyber Crimes Cell has also fined wrongdoers 163 million Pakistan rupees and submitted that to the state treasury.

“The Cyber Crime Cell faces fiscal problems, poor logistical support, and communication gaps with other stations out of province. However, it does well to deal with cases reported. We mostly receive complaints of online harassment, defamation with misinformation and hackings, to which we respond through the legal channels available to us,” says Durrani.

“There is a need for more equipment, technical support, and administrative assistance from social media platforms like Facebook, and Twitter. Their policies make it very difficult for us to access data. According to PECA, cases should be resolved within 90 days, but when there are security threats, or risks we try our best to offer a solution within a week,” he adds.

Despite the FIA’s best efforts, digital insecurity in Balochistan is a great cause for concern. Women are especially vulnerable to online harassment and defamation. It is the responsibility of the state to provide its citizens safe online spaces.