Cyber Safety During the COVID-19 Pandemic

It has only been approximately six months since the coronavirus unleashed its wrath upon humankind, and life, as we knew, has almost entirely ceased to exist. Amid the lockdowns (smart and otherwise!) and attempts to socially distancing ourselves, we have witnessed our healthcare system in chaos, the economy in shambles, and our mental health suffering. Coupled with this is the specter of cyberthreats looming large. 

Digital safety and the open web are not issues unheard of but are now being termed as the new normal – these threats have amplified in epic proportions. Globally, tech companies and telcos are reporting cyber and socially engineered attacks on an aggressive scale. From individuals to big and small companies, both are fast becoming victims of phishing, fraud, extortion ransomware attacks, and harassment threats. 

Although these threats are global, women and children have always known to be easy targets. And what with school closures and physical distancing, children and young adults – who are spending more and more time on WebSphere – are in a more vulnerable situation. 

While the Digital Rights Foundation reported an increased number of complaints registered on their cyber harassment helpline, Marvi Awan, director of Women’s Protection Cell in Sindh, reports more than 800 complaints involving domestic violence and online harassment since March 2020.

According to the Digital Rights Foundation Policy brief titled
COVID19 and Cyber Harassment, the highest number of cyber harassment complaints received were from women (74 percent). “A total of 136 complaints were received during March and April compared to just 47 in January and February.

And while restrictions (if adhered to properly in Pakistan, one might add) may potentially mean containment of the spread of the virus, it certainly does not translate into protecting those who are vulnerable. 

Over a billion children and the youth are affected by school closures. More and more families are relying on access to education as well as entertainment through digital media. Consequently, it means more screen time and, therefore, exposure to unstructured time online as well as harmful and violent content. 

Only a few days ago (June 30th, 2020), three suicides were reported in different areas of Pakistan, including Lahore. One of the victims was found hanged, and the tragedy was linked to the Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) game. The game is currently banned in the country and even sparking a debate on social media. Another case in point is the school teacher harassment scandal that occurred via WhatsApp and other mediums, which has rocked the nation once again. 

During a recent webinar on Child Safety During the COVID19 crisis, organized by eminent human rights advocate Mandy Sanghera, Jerome Elam – President and CEO of Trafficking in America Task Force. Spoke about the threats posed especially to children and young people on digital spaces, primarily social media communities and pages which seem to be designed to target unsuspecting and susceptible victims. 

Talking specifically about online safety and children, Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said: “Under the shadow of COVID-19, the lives of millions of children have temporarily shrunk to just their homes and their screens. We must help them navigate this new reality,” she added.

While Facebook has announced an oversight board of advocates, technologists, journalists, and Nobel Laureates to review xenophobic content (our very own Nighat Dad – founder Digital Rights Foundation Pakistan – being one of them), there is still a considerable gap when it comes to online safety.

Ringing the alarm on cyberthreats amid the pandemic, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau at the fourth Digital Cooperation webinar on ‘Online Safety and Security during COVID19’ also remarked: “I suspect we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg, with many countries simply lacking the technical and human capacity to track the level of malicious content passing through their networks.” 

Indeed things look dire. But challenges arise so that humanity can overcome them. Digital safety is everyone’s business – be it the parents, the school administration, the government, policymakers, tech companies, and more. Protecting our communities and particularly groups who face this discrimination disproportionately means multi-stakeholder action, which includes raising awareness, capacity building, developing a robust infrastructure, and tools with enhanced security and transparency. Yes, this is a massive task in front of us. Thus it is high time to work in solidarity for the greater good instead of politicized nitpicking. The question is, can we move on and do the right thing?