Women remain soft targets for perpetrators of cyber crime

The MMS scandal which broke out at a private varsity in Punjab recently has raised question before the government and the civil society as to why women continue to be the soft targets for perpetrators of cyber crime,  writes Sunny Sharma

Cybercrime has become a serious issue in the modern day. Hacking, morphing, sextortion, breach of privacy are various types of cybercrimes that occur. Women and children are the most vulnerable to cybercrimes. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report released on August 29, 2022, the number of cybercrime incidents in 2021 has gone up by 18.4 per cent since 2019, but the number of such cases against women has risen at a significantly steeper 28 per cent. The data says that of the 52,974 incidents reported in 2021, 10,730 — 20.2 per cent — were reported as cases of crime against women, the data revealed. Cyber-crimes against women primarily include instances of cyber blackmail, threatening, cyber pornography, posting/ publishing of obscene sexual materials, cyber stalking, bullying, defamation, morphing and creation of fake profiles.

Though Punjab does not figure among the top states relating to cyber-crime against women as per the NCRB data. But Punjab yet again topped the list of crime rate (per lakh population) in cases lodged last year under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act, the data released by the National Crime Records Bureau said. As per details, Punjab recorded 32.8 per cent crime rate (per lakh population) in 2021, which was the highest in the country. As per the NCRB report, the projected population of Punjab was 304.04 lakh in 2021 and there were 9,972 cases of NDPS Act reported in the state during the year.

However, when massive protests broke out on the Chandigarh University campus at Mohali (not to be confused with Panjab University, Chandigarh) post-midnight on September 17, after students alleged that “private” and “objectionable” videos of several women hostel inmates were leaked on the internet, it was clear that women were still soft targets for the perpetrators of cyber-crime. The students alleged that videos of nearly 60 girls taking bath in the hostel were leaked. On the other hand, the varsity issued a statement that one video was circulated. Moreover, it was recorded and circulated by the accused herself. The authorities claimed that that the girl had made her own video and shared it with her friend in Himachal Pradesh.

An FIR under Section 354-C (voyeurism) of the Indian Penal Code and Information Technology Act has been registered in the matter and further probe is on, the police said. Refuting rumours about the death of any student on the campus in connection with the controversy, the university said that the video had been leaked by a girl student, who herself sent the video to one of her friends. The development came to the fore after Chandigarh University’s pro-chancellor issued a statement clarifying there has been no suicids or death on campus.

Cyber-crimes against women keep happening intermittently with impunity. In the year of 2001, Ritu Kohli’s case was the first case of cyber stalking reported in India. The victim complained to the police against a person, who was using her identity to chat over the internet. She further complained that the perpetrator was also giving away her address online and using obscene language. Her contact details were also leaked leading to frequent calls at odd hours. Consequently the ‘IP’ address was traced and police investigated the entire matter and ultimately arrested the offender, Manish Kathuria. The police registered the case under Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code for outraging the modesty of Ritu Kohli. But Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code only refers to a word, gesture or act intended to insult modesty of a woman and when the same things are done on the internet, then there is no mention about it in the said section. India’s cyber laws never had a particular provision for cyber stalking nor any other sections for protection of women. None of the conditions mentioned in the section covered cyber stalking. Thus, Ritu Kohli’s case alerted the Government to the urgent need to make laws regarding the aforesaid crime and regarding protection of victims under the same. As a result, Section 66A was added in Information Technology Act, 2008 (ITAA 2008) and it prescribes imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and with fine for sending offensive messages through communication service etc.

But are various Acts exhaustive enough to protect women from cybercrime?  There is still a   question mark over it. In the past, a teacher at a private university in Rajasthan was threatened by her final-year students that either she increase their marks or they would circulate her private videos in student groups. She reported the incident to police, and it came out in the investigation that the videos were self-recorded and sent to her boyfriend, a final-year student in the same university, who in turn shared those with his friends, who were now blackmailing her.

In another case, a woman received a private picture of her 13-year-old daughter on WhatsApp, with a message demanding similar pictures of her. The texter wrote that if she refused, then her daughter’s image would be all over the internet. The messages had come from an international virtual number. Police tracked the IP address to the minor’s boyfriend, who revealed that the girl herself had sent him these pictures on demand.

In another case, a Class X girl and her boyfriend, a first-year college student, shot their video while having intercourse. Her boyfriend believed that she was cheating on him with another boy and, out of vengeance, he sent this video to the girl’s father with the message: “Your daughter is not loyal to me.” The girl had sent him more than 100 private pictures shot in front of the mirror, and he kept saving those in the private photos folder on Facebook. Police deleted all the images from his social media account and ensured he didn’t have any backup.

Cybercrime can be reported online on cyber cells of state police. These can also be reported at cybercrime.gov.in. There are no specific provisions in the IT Act, 2000 that specifically deal with the crime against women as do the provisions of the Indian Penal Code, or the Code of Criminal Procedure for that matter. In a recent development, the government constituted an expert group to prepare a road map for effectively tackling cyber crimes. Based on the group’s recommendations, the Cyber Crime against Women and Children (CCPWC) scheme has been approved by the government. Crimes which are especially targeted against women may be enumerated as cyber-stalking, cyber defamation, cyber-sex, dissemination of obscene material and trespassing into one’s privacy domain, which are very common now-a-days. Section 67 of the Information Technology Act makes publication, transmission and causing to be transmitted and published in electronic form any material containing sexually explicit act or conduct punishable. This means viewing cyber pornography is not illegal in India. Merely downloading, viewing and storing such content does not amount to an offence. What a dichotomy?