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.
Arab society’s 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, said 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 e-mail accounts can be easily hacked,” she said, 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, said, 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 head scarf I usually wear,” she said. That photo was later used it to blackmail Amira. The police were able to de-activate her e-mail 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.
- This article was written for The Media Line.