Cyber-blackmail: A challenge for Pakistan

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August 27, 2015
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While the government is busy in developing a new cyber law,  many from Media, internet service providers, NGOs and members of civil society have already termed it contentious. According to them, many clauses of the proposed bill are tantamount to curtailing the freedom of expression and are against article 19 of the constitution of Pakistan. However at the same time, digital security and cyber blackmail are growing issues across the country.

On August 17, two students, Muhammad Ali and Suhail, were arrested by the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) for blackmailing girls online. The students ran a notorious facebook page called Edwardian Girls using a pseudonym called Gandageer Khan. The group is accused of posting personal information, photos and phone numbers, of girls without their consent and demanding payment in return for removing it – a classical example of cyber-blackmail. The blackmail started in 2011 and ran with impunity for four years before the authorities could nab the culprits.

Cyber-blackmail is the act of threatening to share information about a person to the public, their friends or family, unless a demand is met or money is paid.

It is not clear how many girls were blackmailed, but conservative reports show the number in hundreds. Girls are the most vulnerable and soft target of the blackmailers in Pakistan. In a conversation with three female victims of Gandageer Khan’s blackmail who wished to remain anonymous due to cultural constraints, said the blackmail had a terrible psychological effect on them and their families.

Gandageer-Khan

Muhammad Ali and Suhail, the arrested culprits who ran the notorious blackmail page under the pseudonym Gandageer Khan.

 

FIA authorities have requested all affected girls to come forward and lodge their complaint against Gandageer Khan. Their names will be kept secret. They can come to FIA office at Hayatabad or can call or text on cell number 0332-5930200, said a message from FIA Cyber Crime Department Peshawar.

Tariq Ullah, a university student, had his account hacked by an unknown hacker who sent messages from his ID to his friends. Tariq promptly made a new Facebook account and contacted the hacker. The hacker threatened to release personal pictures of Tariq and his family if he failed to send him Mobile phone credit cards on a regular basis.

Tariq registered an online complaint with the FIA but he did not receive any response. Officials in the FIA Cyber Crime wing said the complaint response depends on the nature of the case.  Some cases take a long time while some are solved in few days.

An official in the FIA who wished not to be named said the existing Cyber Crime law is toothless and that sentencing for a blackmailer, if found guilty, is a mere three-month jail term which is inadequate.

In other parts of the world, such cyber blackmails are considered a serious crime and the culprits receive a harsh sentencing for it. In February this year, a San Diego man named Kevin Bollaert who was found guilty of online blackmailing, identity theft, and extortion was sentenced to 18 years in state prison.

Pakistan on the other hand, is among the list countries where there is quite a loose implementation of the cyber crimes law. Recently, the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication approved the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015 aimed to tighten its hand on the cyber crime and to protect online terrorism. But the penalties and crimes in this bill have been poorly drafted.

The Constitution of Pakistan guarantees the citizens’ right to freedom of expression under Article 19A. But this new bill restricts individual freedom of expression.

Owing to the intense pressure from the IT (Information Technology) Industries, media, internet service providers, NGOs and members of civil society, the bill has been sent back to the assembly for amendments.

In its current form, sections 17 to 26 of this proposed bill term political criticism, immoral messages on Facebook and Twitter as offences.

Besides this, sending an email or message without the recipient’s prior permission is also considered an offence.

The definition of ISPs and telcos has been expanded to include simple internet providers through WiFi, i.e. restaurants, malls, hotels, offices, airports, stations. This gives sweeping powers to investigating agencies to implicate anyone on these charges.

While section 31 gives the government/PTA unfettered powers to block access or remove speech not only on the internet but transmitted through any device, limiting the media’s freedom and citizens’ right to expression.

Human rights groups and activists have termed it an attack on free expression and open internet in the country. They also say the bill can be used for political revenge.

KP human rights group Blue Lines said that the new law only supports government political interest and not of common people.

However, Kashif Khan, a cyber security expert and a PhD computer science scholar at Peshawar’s National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences believes that more than the law, the people have to be educated about their security. “Just by educating people about basic security measures, 95% of the cyber attacks become ineffective”, he said.

Notwithstanding the lacunae in the proposed Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill, Pakistan is in dire need to have a potent law to protect its citizens from cyber abuse. Such laws can better protect people like Tariq Ullah and discourage the likes of Gandageer Khan from taking refuge behind a toothless law.

Perhaps the next version of the bill will better address concerns regarding the clauses affecting human rights as well as tighten the noose on cyber criminals.

The story originally appeared here at Voice of Journalists. 

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