Women said to account for 70 percent of victims with most under 25
Social media accounts are increasingly being hacked and people blackmailed in Bangladesh. (Photo by Tobias Schwarz/AFP)
Gracie Gomes (not her real name) is not the only Bangladeshi girl born into a Catholic family who has suffered at the hands of a jilted boyfriend after he turned to cybercrime to eke out his revenge and ruin her life.
Back in 2012 the teenager saw her year-long relationship with 24-year-old Lesley Rosario (also a pseudonym) fall apart.
Angered by the breakup, Rosario created a fake Facebook profile for Gomes, uploading photographs of her and publicizing her contact details including her phone number.
She soon began receiving calls and text messages from strangers seeking to “befriend” her and soliciting sexual encounters, causing her to change her phone number out of shame and fear.
Gomes’ parents eventually found out and berated her for what had happened, after which they forced her to stop studying and made her consent to an arranged marriage.
“I was very upset as well as my family. We didn’t want to bring further shame on my family by sharing [the news of the Facebook fiasco] with others,” Gracie recently told ucanews.com.
As expected, no one filed a police complaint over the matter.
Horrific as it may sound, such cases are not unusual in this deeply conservative and male-dominated society, where women are still considered inferior to men and are now increasingly at risk of falling prey to cybercrime.
Recent police studies indicate that cyber attacks, including those with a radical bent, are on the rise. Moreover, seven in 10 victims are female.
“Our information suggests that around 70 percent of the victims are women, with those aged 18-25 making up 57 percent and those under 18 accounting for 13 percent,” said Nazmul Islam, the assistant police commissioner of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s Cyber Security and Crime Division.
“We also found a rising number of incidents where social media accounts were hacked and people blackmailed,” he told ucanews.com on May 28.
In the capital Dhaka some 666 cases related to cybercrime were filed from 2016 until April 2017 with 67 people arrested, he added.
A lack of public awareness about cybersecurity, lax enforcement of cyber laws and poor monitoring are blamed for the spike in crimes of this nature, according to Mahjabin Nahar, a lecturer of Computer Science and Technology at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET).
“There is a serious lack of initiatives for cyber education in the country and people, especially the young generation, are largely unaware of cybersecurity despite their enthusiasm for the virtual world,” she said.
“Our negligence is having disastrous consequences,” she told ucanews.com.
Bangladesh ranked 73 out of 100 nations measured by the U.K.-based National Cyber Security Index due to a recent spike in cybercrime.
The same police study also discovered a spike in “cyberterrorism” as jihadists venture online to spread their messages of hate in a bid to indoctrinate more young people.
This generation is especially vulnerable given its engagement with social media but local law enforcement agencies lack both the personnel and expertise to properly monitor cyberspace, Nahar added.
Analysts say the government began cracking down on cybercrime in 2013 in the wake of a series of brutal murders of atheist bloggers, writers, publishers, religious minorities and foreigners.
However “cyber radicalism” is still going strong, they say.
And while women are getting the raw end of the deal, the true number of female victims is believed to be considerably higher as many crimes go unreported, said Sumon Hermon Costa, a Catholic and IR Network System Engineer at the church-run Notre Dame University in Bangladesh.
“Women and girls seem to be especially trusting of their friends, regardless of if they are male or female. They easily share their personal information with others, and more are finding that comes back and bites them,” he said.
“In rural areas, cybercrime tends to occur more frequently but females are reluctant to report it as they worry about being socially ostracized or harassed by the police,” he added.
The nation has about 150,000 police to safeguard the interests of more than 160 million people but officers in rural areas are lower in numbers and are not as well organized or well trained as their peers in big cities.
So even though rural areas tend to have fewer computers, rural women and girls are considered easy prey due to the relatively low level of social security, activists argue.
On top of this, when incidents occur that throw a woman’s moral standing into question she is often blamed for acting inappropriately or inviting disaster regardless of the facts, according to women’s rights’ campaigners.
Costa said there is also a lack of efficiency, monitoring and tracking on the part of law enforcement agencies when it comes to policing cyberterrorism, especially in relation to the recruitment and indoctrination of new members by the so-called Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other local militant outfits.
“These days a student can create an app fairly easily. Now if that person were a jihadist, they could use it to spread their extremist ideology,” Costa said.
“Unless the police are as highly skilled as some of these “cyber jihadists,” this kind of thing is almost impossible to stop,” he added.
Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act 2018 — which has been accused by critics of stifling dissent and limiting freedom of expression — defines information technology fraud, identity theft and impersonation, cyberterrorism, violation of privacy, and production, distribution and consumption of pornography, producing offensive online materials, spamming, and spreading hate and religious bigotry as among the list of major cybercrimes.
The law provides strict punishments for these crimes without the option of bail. Violators can receive sentences of up to 14 years in jail and a fine of up to 20 million taka (US$237,000).