Cybercrime Towards Children in Pakistan
According to official figures documented by the Federal investigation Agency (FIA), in recent years, Pakistan has witnessed an immense increase in online harassment, blasphemous and anti-religious content as well as child pornography complaints. Last year, the FIA registered 260 complaints daily, reaching up to a total of 94,500 complaints in 2020. These complaints concern minor cybercrimes such as identity theft and spamming, but also serious allegations such as child pornography, sexual harassment, financial fraud, hacking, and defamation (Gishkori,2021).
Cybercrime can be defined as “a crime or an unlawful act through an information system” (CCW FIA, 2021). Most often, a computer or another device is used as either a tool, a target, or both, to obtain unauthorised access to another information system without the permission of the rightful owner. Cybercrime can also occur when a device uses another’s information system to commit crimes on the internet, such as online harassment, spamming, hacking, but also the possession of child pornography and financial fraud (CCW FIA, 2021).
With children becoming increasingly active online, it must be taken into account that the seemingly innocent apps they are using can be of great concern. Every child that uses these platforms can come across computer viruses, ransomware, and identity theft on a daily basis. On platforms such as chat rooms, social media, video streaming sites such as YouTube, or online video games, children have become great targets because of their substantial activity on these platforms and their unawareness of the danger that may lie behind one innocent ‘click’. Anonymous sharing is very popular in apps such as Snapchat where messages only show up temporarily before being removed. However, children do not always understand that nothing is temporary on the internet: cyber thieves or bullies take screenshots or information before a child can think to realise. Direct messaging is a way for cyberthieves to place links directing children to phishing sites which can be harmful for their devices and the information present in it. Children love video games and will play all day long when given the chance to. However, they do not realise that when they leave the game or the game’s website, thieves can use social engineering tricks such as pop-up ads, chat links, or fake login schemes, to lure them in. In sum, while the internet may seem innocent to a child, it is far from it, and parents must educate their children to be safe online (Corron, 2018).
In Pakistan, the FIA has created a special wing, namely the Cyber Crime Wing (CCW), for the purpose of reporting on and eventually preventing cybercrime. The CCW is guided by laws established under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) of 2016, dealing with the growing threats of cybercrimes. PECA criminalizes violence against minors and sexual exploitation of children on online platforms, with a punishment of up to seven years imprisonment or a fine of up to 5 million rupees, or both, for the perpetrators of these crimes (PECA, 2016). Since its establishment in 2007, the CCW is the only unit in Pakistan that receives direct complaints about instances of cybercrime and that can take legal measures against the perpetrators behind such crimes (CCW FIA, 2021).
The magnitude of cybercrimes in Pakistan can be seen from the total complaints received by the CCW, having received a total of 84,764 complaints in 2020. These complaints can be categorised accordingly as illustrated in the following chart.
Source: CCW FIA, 2021.
Most complaints received concerned financial fraud, hacking and identity theft. The remainder of this article will explain the crimes most committed against children in Pakistan, such as cyberbullying, child pornography, identity theft, and cyber stalking and harassment (CCW FIA, 2021).
Young people between the ages of 15 to 24 years old that are active online in Pakistan often fall victim to online violence, cyberbullying and digital harassment. These numbers are the result of a UNICEF poll which received more than 1 million responses within five weeks from over 160 countries worldwide. UNICEF calls for concerted action to tackle and eventually prevent online violence against children and young people (UNICEF, 2019).
Overall, cyberbullying causes great harm to children due to the rapid rate at which it can reach a wide audience as well as the relatively permanent nature of the content as it can remain accessible almost indefinitely. Bullying that occurs online forms continuously damaging behaviour from and towards children. Victims of cyberbullying sadly engage more in harmful practices and are more susceptible to skipping or even dropping out of school because of the impact of the bullies. If they remain in school, they receive poorer grades than the children who do not experience cyberbullying. On top of that, they have extremely low self-esteem and sometimes suffer from health problems. In the most extreme circumstances, cyberbullying has led to suicide (UNICEF, 2019). Aida Girma-Melaku, UNICEF’s Representative in Pakistan, says that by protecting children from the worst the internet has to offer and expanding the internet’s best to the greatest extent, we can help children to tip the balance for good (UNICEF, 2019). The internet is not all bad, for it is a place for children to connect with one another and to learn, however, we must not forget the dangers behind it, and we must inform children to the greatest extent. Cyberbullying is bullying in all its forms, and it has to be prevented to the greatest extent possible (Farooq, 2016).
In Pakistan, pornography, especially involving children, is illegal and considered to be un-Islamic. The Pakistani Supreme Court has banned online material that was considered to be blasphemous or objectionable in the socially conservative society of Pakistan. The government has already asked internet companies to block more than 400,000 pornography websites, but hundreds of thousands have fallen through the cracks of the internet censors (Bangkok Post, 2016).
Pakistan’s Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari has sadly confirmed that Pakistan was the number 1 country in the world for child pornography. She said “the menace of child pornography is in every stratum of our society” (EurAsian Times Desk, 2019). She advised that a campaign should be run in government based schools and that individuals in everyday society needed to get out there to hold a constructive dialogue concerning child abuse, especially child pornography. This is because, according to the Minister, “in order to put an end to incidents of sexual abuse of children, we need to launch collective efforts” (EurAsian Times Desk, 2019). Herein, not only is it important to establish the means to engage in dialogue, but it is also vital for children to have a conversation with their parents or other adults about this matter. Children need to be educated on how to be safe online and elsewhere, for only then can we make sure that Pakistan never ranks number 1 again (EurAsian Times Desk, 2019).
Pakistan is one of the very few countries that requires its citizens to have their biometric details registered and to have a Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC). Unfortunately, even with this seemingly tightly controlled system, identity theft and fraud remains a rampant issue, affecting both youngsters and adults (Privacy International, 2014).
Identity theft is a crime which involves an individual maliciously obtaining and using someone else’s individual, personal and sensitive information with which that person commits frauds or scams (FIA National Response Centre for Cyber Crime, 2021). Now that children are heavily incentivised to increase their online activity, particularly due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has shifted learning to online platforms, identity theft has become more frequent. Fears are being expressed over the safety and privacy of children by digital rights groups and child protection organisations. Digital rights activist and lawyer, Nighat Dad, stressed that it is important for children and adults to know the threats that are emerging online. Parents and schools need to collaborate on creating a safe and secure space for children to talk about their online experiences. It is vital that schools provide the means through which children are taught how they should behave online so that they are able to recognize the dangers (Bukhari, 2020).
Cyber Stalking and Harassment
Cyber stalking is the use of the internet to threaten or make unwanted advances towards another person. Cyber stalking causes physical, emotional, and psychological damage to the victim, especially when involving young children who have a trusting nature and do not see the danger in their online actions (FIA National Response Centre for Cyber Crime, 2021). According to the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), digital harassment and cyber bullying have been increasing in Pakistan, as illustrated by the DRF’s
Cyber Harassment Helpline which reported a total of 2,023 cases or 146 calls monthly in 2019 alone – that is 45% of their overall claims from the last three years concerned with digital harassment and cyber bullying. Of the complaints, 57% were made by women, the majority of them being between 21 and 25 years, the most vulnerable of which were “young women”. The greatest number of complaints of cyber harassment and stalking were made on WhatsApp and Facebook, which makes clear that social media platforms have become a playground for online harassment. An exponential increase in the number of cases received was witnessed during the lockdown period due to the COVID-19 pandemic – a period within which there was a total increase by 189% (Jamal, 2020).
The aforementioned DRF has now established a Cyber Harassment Helpline which has become the first dedicated, toll-free helpline for victims of online harassment, violence, and stalking. The helpline offers victims free, safe, and confidential services and aims to provide legal advice, digital security support, psychological counselling, and even a referral system to victims of online harassment. The helpline is a judgement-free, private and gender-sensitive environment for all its callers – no one will be left to stand alone (DRF, 2021).
To conclude, with the COVID-19 lockdown, children have used the internet more extensively than ever before. This means that they are also more likely to fall victim to the dangers of the internet, such as cyberbullying, stalking and harassment, identity theft, and child pornography, to only name a few. The only solution to the growing issue of violence against children on online platforms is education. Either via their school institutions or through their parents, children need to become aware of the dangers that lie on the dark, unknown web. Only when children learn how to behave online will it be possible to tackle the issue of cybercrime.
Bangkok Post (2016, January 26) “Pakistan orders 400,000 porn sites blocked” https://www. bangkok post. com/world/840328/pakistan-orders-400000-porn-sites-blocked.
Bukhari, A., (2020, May 23) “Juveniles in cyberspace: how to ensure protection amid surge in online abuse cases? In the The Express Tribune: https://tribune.com.pk/story/2227868/juveniles-cyberspace-ensure protection-amid-surge-online-abuse-cases.
CCW FIA (2021) “Cyber Crimes Risks, Prevention and Legal Remedies – Guidelines for Cyber Users” https: //fia.gov.pk/files/publications/860464251.pdf.
Corron, L., (2018, January 17) “Social Cyber Threats Facing Children and Teens in 2018” https:// stay safe online.org/blog/social-cyber-threats-facing-children-teens-2018/.
DRF (2021) “Cyber Harassment Helpline” https://digitalrightsfoundation.pk/cyber-harassment-helpline/.
EurAsian Times Desk (2019, July 4) “Pakistan No. 1 in Child Pornography and Abuse: Human Rights Minister” https://eurasiantimes.com/pakistan-no-1-in-child-pornography-and-abuse-human-rights-minister/.
Farooq, M., (2016, March 6) “Stop cyber bullying” https://www.dawn.com/news/1243500.
FIA National Response Centre for Cyber Crime (2021) “Cyber crime categories” http://www.nr3c. gov.pk/ crimecategorie.html.
Gishkori, Z., (2021, May 6) “Country witnesses massive jump in cybercrime cases” in the News International https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/831215-country-witnesses-massive-jump-in-cybercrime-cases.
Jamal, S., (2020, July 1) “Cyber harassment on the rise in Pakistan, report says” in Gulf News: https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/pakistan/cyber-harassment-on-the-rise-in-pakistan-report-says 1.72354581.
Privacy International (2016, July 23) “Identity theft persists in Pakistan’s biometric era” in Free Expression & the Law: https://ifex.org/identity-theft-persists-in-pakistans-biometric-era/.
UNICEF (2019, February 5) “Safer Internet Day: UNICEF calls for concerted action to prevent bullying and harassment of young people online in Pakistan” https://www.unicef.org/pakistan/press-releases/safer internet-day-unicef-calls-concerted-action-prevent-bullying-and-harassment.
Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016  http://www.na. gov.pk/ uploads /docum ents/ 147 091 0 65 9_707.pdf.