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Islamabad: Digital harassment and cyber-bullying are increasing in Pakistan, a new report by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) said.

DRF’s cyber harassment helpline reported 2,023 cases or 146 calls every month during 2019 — accounting for 45 per cent of the overall complaints received in the last three years. “This is an alarming increase in the number of cases over time and a disturbing upward trend in cyber-harassment,” DRF said in a statement.

At least “57 per cent of the complaints are from women” who registered personal complaints, followed by 30 per cent men who had called the helpline, the report stated. Most of the cases reported were from Punjab (57 per cent), followed by Sindh (15 per cent). Majority of the callers were aged between 21 and 25 years, while the most vulnerable group comprised “young women”.

The report noted that social media platforms were becoming ground for online harassment. “The most number of complaints related to cyber-bullying were reported on WhatsApp (855), while 29 per cent of callers reported harassment on Facebook.”

Although the report is based on 2019 data, Nighat Dad, the executive director of DRF, a research and advocacy NGO, said the organisation witnessed an exponential increase in the number of cases since the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent lockdown this year. “In the months of March and April, we saw an increase of 189 per cent as compared to January and February,” she said.

Pakistan’s first dedicated cyber harassment helpline is a nationwide initiative to provide legal, digital and psychological support to those facing threats online. Online harassment may include threats, cyber-stalking, hacking, revenge porn, trolling, hate crime and online impersonation.

Total number of cyber grievances in 2019:

Complaints: 2,023

Calls: 1,805

Emails: 218

Cases: 1,960

Facebook complaints: 170

New cyber threats

Another worrying trend in Pakistan is the “financial fraud and scams through mobile wallet and e-cash accounts” the report said, citing new cyberthreats and challenges. 
Hackers are also tricking people by impersonating government officials and using various means — from phishing to malware — to hack into victims’ accounts.

Warnings for the public:

DRF, in its report, has urged people to enhance online security in order to remain safe from data breach. The public has been advised to:

— Avoid over-sharing of personal information in public posts.

— Control one’s privacy by keeping a check on security and privacy settings.

— Review login information.

— Stop ad tracking and ensure social media platforms and other websites are not tracking one.

— Disable location-sharing online.

Recommendations for officials:

The report has made several suggestions for policymakers to curb online harassment in Pakistan. It includes:

— Address the digital gap by removing financial, social and safety barriers.

— Gender-responsive measures and training of law enforces.

— Government urged to enact meaningful legislation on digital privacy and data protection.
— Switch the national cybercrime-related complaints portal to online platform as the current system in cumbersome.

— Allocate more resources for FIA’s National Response Centre for Cybercrime.

— Empower local police to process cases of online harassment.

— Training for judges on cybercrime law, internet governance and online harassment.

— Introduce a mechanism to deal with cases in foreign jurisdiction.

— Decriminalise defamation laws.

Cyber-harassment reporting mechanism in Pakistan

Federal Investigation Agency’s (FIA) National Response Centre for Cybercrime is the official channel to register cyber-bullying complaints.

FIA cybercrime wing: Complainants have to go to the nearest FIA cybercrime office with a written application, evidence in hard copy and an ID card. Minors need to be accompanied by the guardians.

DRF cyber harassment helpline: A private referral and redressal helpline that connects cyber-bullying victims with law-enforcement agencies and also offer legal, digital and emotional support.