Palestinian women face growing cyber-crime threat
RAMALLAH—While use of the Internet and social media is growing in the Palestinian territories, some experts warn it has also brought with it the danger of cyber crime—especially against women—more harmful and at a greater rate than it is worldwide.
Arabic society’s conservative and patriarchal nature runs counter to the Internet’s call to share everything with everyone, and makes women more vulnerable to cyber threats. As a result, many are very deliberate about not using pictures on the Internet, not only in personal use, but also in their professional lives, fearing their reputations will be ruined.
As a result, even women running for public office think twice about how much exposure they want to give their photos and where. Women running in the municipal elections in the Palestinian territories last year in some cities like Hebron opted not to use their photos on the Internet, sometimes replacing them with flowers.
The head of an all-woman list in Hebron told a crowd during her campaign that she didn’t use photos of herself and her colleagues out of respect for the norms and culture there.
Public officials are not the only women being threatened with blackmail via the Internet and who are becoming more careful about what they share online.
Maysa’ Salem, a 26-year-old writer from a village near Nablus, told The Media Line that she doesn’t post any of her photos on Facebook or online, especially after hearing stories of threats via the Internet.
“Facebook in particular is a public place. Technology in general is not a safe place and Facebook and email accounts can be easily hacked,” she told The Media Line, explaining that if photos of her were spread through the Internet, it might make her seem indecent and harm her reputation.
More than half of those using the Internet in the Palestinian territories were subject to information threats, according to polls published by the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics last month. Differences were clear between the West Bank, which recorded 49.1 percent were affected by cyber-crimes and the Gaza Strip where 61.9 percent said they were targeted.
Of the cyber crimes reported, 13.1 percent involved the dissemination of indecent and inappropriate content; 9.3 percent involved disrupting and sabotaging data; 7.3 percent included the theft of personal data; and 1.1 percent involved credit card threat.
Since its establishment in 2010, the Palestinian Digital Crimes unit has dealt with hundreds of Internet-related complaints. Last month alone, nine reports of cyber crimes were filed with police. In addition, “not all cases we received over the last three years went to court due to the sensitivity of this topic,” Ibrahim Adu Ein, head of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Palestinian police, told The Media Line, adding that most of the complaints come from women.
Due to society’s mindset, even the online dissemination of everyday photographs of women can be a potential threat.
Amira (not her real name), 23, was blackmailed by a man she met through the Internet. “I was lured by the fact that he was a good friend and sent him a photo of mine without the headscarf I usually wear,” she told The Media Line. That photo was later used to blackmail Amira. The police were able to de-activate her email accounts and identify the blackmailer, who by that time was also extorting money from Amira’s relatives. One of the victims had sold some of her mother’s jewelry to pay the demanded $550 ransom before Amira was able to convince her that there was help available.
“She was too afraid to go to the police although I told her they helped me,” Amira said.
“In some cases, we are able to delete the page that includes inappropriate data,” Abu Ein told The Media Line.
Internet use among Palestinians is on the rise despite the threat of cyber crime. One-third of Palestinians polled used the Internet in 2011 compared with 9.2 percent in 2004. Among those between the ages of 15 and 29, 55 percent used the Internet in 2011compared to 5 percent in 2004.
Still, the threat of blackmail has some Palestinians being extra wary of what they post. Speaking anonymously, a father of two told The Media Line that his wife’s Internet communications were hacked and used in a blackmail attempt, but he refused to meet the ransom demand. “People used to call me and tell me what she was doing or what we are saying,” he said, adding that the hackers used to spy on their house via hacking programs.
Abu Ein said he believes that the percentage of women seeking police help in such cases is growing, but that in general, the Internet threats are still under control, but added words of caution. “We don’t want people to be afraid and not use the Internet,” he said. “Mostly, the more educated and less conservative people are, the less chance there is of their being blackmailed. We need people to know that the Internet is not the problem, but it is not the place to make friends.”