WOMEN are increasingly falling victim to cyber-attacks, being targeted through online shopping and social media activities, including on business-networking platforms, in some instances ending in physical stalking and attacks.
Speaking on the issue in the wake of Monday's reports of a major Whatsapp data leak – which has been denied by Meta – cybersecurity expert Trevor Forrest says that, without knowing it, women are giving detailed information of almost every move on the Internet.
"Generally, women have become the most targeted individuals online; it's staggering the kind of statistics out there. Be mindful of the pictures and the videos that you post. A lot of women don't realise the amount of personal information that they share when they go online, in doing these things. It can escalate as high up as personal contact, abuse, rape, murder," he warned.
A May 2022 World Bank release on women and cybersecurity noted that female Internet users face a higher number of cybercrime incidents and online harassment while also being at an increased risk of financial data loss, violations of privacy, and security breaches. According to an Organization of American States (OAS) white paper on the cyber security of women during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital 'sextortion' strategies increased significantly during the period, with a major gender slant, focusing on women and girls. In 2017, an Amnesty International survey on women's experiences of abuse and harassment on social media said 46 per cent of respondents reported experiencing online abuse or harassment of a misogynistic or sexist in nature.
Forrest pointed out that one area of vulnerability for women, which leaves them open to financial and other scams, is online shopping. "Because women are serial shoppers they tend to, sometimes on their most popular shopping sites online, out of convenience, enter a lot of information about themselves – addresses, phone numbers, their credit card information. If any of those bits of information gets compromised, suddenly a whole bunch of people, especially on the dark web, now have access to your information," he explained in a Jamaica Observer interview.
He said, too, that women are overwhelmingly the target of stalking, and even bullying, with virtual activities sometimes ending up in the workplace where a stalker may seek to harass them in person. "In some instances, the Internet provides a particular level of anonymity that some people thrive on, but also you find that because we are prone to sharing information on social media, whether it be for attention seeking or personal aggrandisement. In doing so, women in particular don't pay attention to how the information they share actually threatened their own security," he said.
Forrest said through cyberstalking, individuals with nefarious intent can easily stitch together detailed information, by locating women's profiles across various social media platforms, and then use this data to attack them. "In doing so the harassment, both online and in person, starts. For example, you have a lot of women sharing pictures of the things they do on a routine basis – but in sharing the pictures they don't realise that they are actually showing habits and these are what stalkers tend to use to their advantage," he said.
Forrest says people with ulterior motives also haunt business networking platform such as LinkedIn, making women an easy target when they provide sensitive resume-type information without filtering out their phone numbers and addresses.
Another threat that has become more prevalent with the COVID-19 pandemic and the use of popular videoconferencing platform Zoom, and other similar platforms, is 'camfecting', where individuals can hack into webcams and activate without the owner's knowledge. "It happens a lot in the workplace. To keep safe, protect your webcam, disconnect it when possible, have a shutter device on camera, don't share more information than is absolutely necessary," Forrest said, also urging the use of VPN and anti-virus software.
Apps developed by utility companies to facilitate billing should not be discounted, as they too are open to cyberattacks and data compromise, he pointed out, noting one recent media report of the 2020 data breach of a utility company's billing platform.
"The layman doesn't have the tools to check the safety of some of these applications, neither do they have the ability to determine how well these things are being secured. This will change when the Data Protection legislation is in full effect next year December, but in the meantime one of the methods you can use is to go through the banks. The banks invest a whole lot more in their security infrastructure, and they have to treat with your information much better," Forrest advised.
The cybersecurity expert stressed that it is important for women to report cyberattacks and threats to police, and/or to a supervisor where threats happen in the work space. "When all else fails or you feel totally threatened, report it. You want to catch these people," he said, noting that the country's 2015 cybercrime law provides significant protection to victims of cyberthreats, "especially to women, even though it doesn't say that".
Section nine of the Cybercrimes Act makes it an offence to use a computer to send to another person any data (whether in the form of a message or otherwise) that is obscene, constitutes a threat, or is menacing in nature, and intends to cause, or is reckless as to whether the sending of the data causes, annoyance, inconvenience, distress, or anxiety, to that person or any other person.
A first offence attracts a prison term of up to four years, or a fine not exceeding four million or both fine and imprisonment, regardless of whether the recipient of the data is or is not the person to whom the offender intended the information to be sent. The Act is currently under review by a joint select committee of Parliament.