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Cyberspace sexual crimes: High-tech, sensitised, dedicated policing essential

By Sumudu Chamara

 

The number of persons being arrested over allegations of sexually abusing a 15-year-old who was sold via the Internet keeps increasing, and during the past few days, more than 30 people from different walks of life were nabbed by the Police in connection with the said incident. However, social activists are of the opinion that this is merely one of countless such incidents taking place both online and offline, and that this should spur authorities to pay more attention to child sexual abuse cases.

Many media reports portrayed this incident as an example of the dark side of technology; however, this also shows a dark side of society, simply because at the end of the day, it is we that decide the purpose for which we use any technology. Essentially, lessening and ultimately preventing these types of incidents is a matter of how equipped we are with knowledge and ethics, to balance technological advancements, social responsibilities, human needs, and also laws and policies.

Today’s Spotlight looks into what technological and legal aspects this issue pertains to.

 

Technology

Quoting the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), The Morning, on Wednesday (7), reported that there is an issue of grassroots-level Police officers not being fully supportive when it comes to filing complaints regarding cybercrimes. NCPA officials told us that this reluctance was likely due to the generational gap, which makes modern and evolving technologies unfamiliar to Police officers, and also their lack of knowledge on how to take action in such circumstances. 

The NCPA had further raised concerns about the monitoring and investigating of cybercrimes relating to children, citing a lack of specialised knowledge on the part of the officers assigned to handling related tasks, and also the unavailability of sophisticated technological infrastructure.

The issue of child sexual abuses, which can be seen in many forms such as online sexual exploitation, online sexual harassment, online blackmail, and child pornography, is a global issue, and many countries have taken various approaches to address it.

Emphasising it, prominent cyber security researcher Duminda Jayasena told The Morning that various countries have taken different innovative and technology-based approaches to address such issues, and that Sri Lanka too can adopt some of these measures, such as being proactive without solely relying on complaints, and establishing dedicated law enforcement agencies.

He added: “If we take Europe and the US, most content considered child pornography and child exploitation circulate on the dark web, and they have separate law enforcement agencies to look into these crimes. They receive so many complaints that the US had recently said they find it difficult to manage all the child exploitation cases they receive, and therefore had decided to focus more on cases involving children younger than four months. This shows the massive number of cases they receive, especially with regard to child pornography and sexual exploitation.”

Adding that Europe and the US are regions that have more information technology (IT)-related developments, and therefore their research tends to deliver better results, he said that when it comes to Sri Lanka’s legal system however, there is no proper mechanism to handle such complaints.

He added that Sri Lanka needs a separate law enforcement agency or a unit under such an authority to look into these types of issues, and that such units in other countries include IT experts as well as Police officers.

“In Sri Lanka, WhatsApp is the main communication method used to share such content, mostly among those who know each other. This is also one of the reasons why the dark web is not very famous in Sri Lanka. As far as I know, the dark web is not very prevalent among Sri Lanka’s Internet users; even globally, Sri Lanka is not identified as a country that faces a considerable threat due to the dark web. However, in addition to certain places on the dark web, there are groups and forums on public websites that discuss these types of incidents. 

“When a person receives various forms of content that are or can lead to child pornography or similar content via WhatsApp, in Sri Lanka, they are less likely to face any repercussions. If we take into consideration the situation in the US or Europe, a person who receives such content or a link and does not delete it, but keeps it, that in itself constitutes a crime and is sufficient for legal action to be taken against them. 

“If a person saves or keeps on their devices, material that can be identified as child pornography, that is considered a grave offence. I believe that Sri Lanka too should have such laws. However, according to the research I have done, I can see that some people who frequently interact with such content are more like regular followers. Taking these trends into consideration, Sri Lanka needs to have a team not only to take action, but also to regularly monitor these Internet-based interactions.” 

If we take Sri Lanka, there are many Facebook pages that promote various forms of sexual content, and some of them contain those related to children, which is a violation of Facebook’s ethical guidelines, and in some cases copyright law.

 

Laws and society

The Morning also looked into the legal aspects of Internet-based sexual crimes, and also the implementation of these laws.

Speaking in this regard, Nelumyaya Foundation Programme Director Attorney-at-Law Radika Gunaratne, who is a trainer on gender and law, said that more than a lack of laws, it is the improper implementation of existing laws that hinder the legal system from assisting victims and preventing such crimes.

Gunaratne said that those attached to law enforcement agencies need to be given training to ensure that they are equipped to deal with cyber bullying and online sexual harassment related issues. She added that incidents amounting to sextortion (sex-based extortion) and blackmail can be prevented through the law, which, however, has been hindered due to the lack of awareness among law enforcement officers, which in turn results in a lower number of complaints being filed.

Gunaratne noted that if there is concrete evidence and proper legal representation, there is an opportunity to obtain adequate legal support, adding that according to Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system, the initial complaint is usually filed at the Police, who do not have proper scientific training on these types of incidents. She also said that even though Sri Lanka has cybercrime laws, they are more focused on bigger incidents such as financial cybercrimes, and that gender-related crimes are usually referred to the Police.

According to her, in addition to the legal issues, there are a number of practical issues that hinder victims of sextortion from seeking justice in Sri Lanka. She added that the main issue that affects Sri Lanka’s situation is that there is no clear and specific legal framework to deal with such incidents, even though action can be taken after filing a complaint under various other laws, such as laws relating to women’s protection.

One of the practical issues in this regard, according to Gunaratne, is that when addressing issues pertaining to cybercrime, evidence is necessary to prove that blackmail has occurred.

She added: “In some cases, the lack of evidence has hindered the victims from seeking and also from getting proper legal assistance. It is important that people keep every piece of evidence regardless of how the online harassment takes place, be it offline or online. Any victim has the right to seek legal assistance, and the general public should also be aware of their rights. It is more important to adopt preventive measures than dealing with the issue once an incident of abuse has taken place. The people should also be careful when they are in a relationship, and be vigilant about the warning signs when the other party is trying to take advantage of them.”

She further added that the law enforcement agencies such as the Police, or the first and main institution the victims seek assistance from, should be sensitive about dealing with the victims and their issues. She explained: “The concept called victim blaming is a big issue in this process, and it is happening at these institutions. When women seek these institutions’ assistance, which primarily involves the filing of complaints, putting the blame on the victim and advising them about their behaviour takes place often. 

“This is mainly caused by gender stereotyping in Sri Lanka, and this ‘double victimisation’ discourages victims from seeking assistance. Also, this, in a way, makes the perpetrators more powerful, which in turn encourages them to continue similar acts. Also, there is a certain pressure from society. In a majority of the cases of sexual exploitation and online sexual harassment, it is the victim who is usually blamed. Also, sometimes, when such incidents take place, the society is concerned about so-called ‘morality’, which is an integral part of Sri Lankan society.”

Speaking of the legal reforms, Gunaratne opined that the practical implementation of the existing laws should change to a certain extent, in addition to concrete legal reforms.

She also pointed out that there is a power imbalance aspect to these issues, adding that when it comes to crimes against those who possess less power in a relationship, they tend to be more vulnerable. She emphasised that the victim does not always have to be a woman, and that the victim can be any person of any gender, who is less powerful than the other party (perpetrator).

She added: “Even in a homosexual relationship, in which both persons are of the same gender, the person who is less powerful than the other could be the victim. In this context, these types of issues have more to do with power (assigned to each party) than gender. When a person is victimised, they tend to become further powerless in the existing system. These issues exist as open secrets, or hidden truths, and there should be a proper support system to address these issues more effectively. In fact, online harassment and offline harassment are interlinked, as the impacts of online harassments affect people offline.”

She also noted that even though laws and law reforms are important, addressing the issues in the existing support systems, including sensitisation and awareness programmes, are also necessary.

Meanwhile, speaking of the existing legal system, Jayasena said that Sri Lanka should have a mechanism to refer online sexual exploitation and harassment related cases directly to the units tasked with looking into cybercrime, who have more knowledge than normal Police officers, and that that is how such cases are handled in other countries.

He added: “Even cases that do not involve information-related matters sometimes do not get enough proper attention within Sri Lanka’s legal system. What happens most of the time is that when a person goes to a law enforcement agency such as a Police station, the victim is further victimised, and due to that reason, there are so many cases that never get the attention they require. I am of the opinion that there may be bigger cases that have not been exposed yet.”

Even if the best laws are put in writing, unless the law enforcement agencies and officers are equipped to implement the law properly, or deal with those seeking support in a supportive manner, there is no point in having those laws, and such a situation is most likely to worsen the state of those seeking legal support.

As those who spoke with us stressed, such situations dishearten those who might be in need of legal support, and will result in leaving victims to fight the trauma of abuse and harassment, as well as the societal pressure, instead of providing them the relief or redress they are owed.