Last updated on Jun 11th, 2021 at 10:51 am

While digital innovations have transformed the communication landscape, opening up markets and industries across the globe, they have also had a negative impact on privacy

Women (and men) around the world have fallen victim to extortionists who use compromising images and information for personal gain.

The global coronavirus pandemic has led to a major push towards digital communication while people are confined to their homes during lockdown, opening up opportunities for criminals to take advantage of security breaches, and naïve digital users.

Even parliamentary Zoom sessions have fallen victim to digital sabotage, with hackers gate-crashing meetings and flooding the message boards with porn. South Africa is ranked 23rd in the world in terms of cybercrime, according to computer forensics company Cyanre.

“Revenge-porn”

Digital images and videos have also become a way for angry exes to extort their former lovers.

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In Australia, image-based abuse or ‘revenge-porn’ has increased by 210% according to Australia’s eSafety Commissioner.

The UK is also seeing a similar spike with double the number of cases. Britain’s state-funded Revenge Porn Helpline reports opening about 250 cases in April – a record number and double that of April 2019.

In Australia, the eSafety Commissioner received more than 1 000 reports of image-based abuse between March and May 2020, representing a 210% increase on the average weekly number of reports received last year.

In South Africa, social media expert, Emma Sadleir, of the Digital Law Company, says she has been inundated with complaints about sextortion during the lockdown. In an interview with The Herald, Sadleir says: ?“Everything is happening online. People are home and bored, so many are willing to send pictures.”

In 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed the Films and Publications Amendment Bill into law. The law addresses hate speech, child pornography and revenge porn. Revenge porn is now regarded as a crime in South Africa, and those found guilty can be given hefty fines or jail time.

3 Categories of offences

Robyn Farrell, CEO of 1st for Women Insurance, which recently launched a cyberbullying insurance product, explains that there are three categories of offences:

  • Cyberbullying – the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature. This is most common among schoolchildren, as they increasingly use social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.
  • Revenge porn – when someone, usually an ex or former partner, maliciously shares naked, nude or sexually explicit photos of you without your permission. The images or videos can be distributed via social media, text messages, emails or even uploaded onto pornographic websites. The intention is usually to humiliate you.
  • Sextortion – images of attractive men or women are used to lure victims to carry out sexually explicit acts, such as posing for nude photographs or performing sexual acts in front of a webcam. These images or videos are then used to blackmail the victim with the threat of public exposure. According to a 2018 report in Sowetan Live, a former PSL soccer referee fell victim to a sextortion scam when he accepted a friend request from a woman on Facebook. She contacted him, saying that photoshopped naked photographs would be shared of him if he didn’t pay R3000. “We believe there to be a syndicate operating in South Africa,” says Sadleir’s Digital Law Co website.

“It’s important for victims to know that image-based abuse is a crime and the victim is never to blame – the fault lies completely with the perpetrator,” says Farrell.

3 Keys to protecting yourself

If you’re over the age of 18 and you are sending this type of content, Sadlier has 3 keys to protecting yourself which she revealed in an interview with eNCA:

  1. Make sure your face and your private parts aren’t in the same image. Protect your identity, and don’t allow any identifying marks to link you to the image.
  2. Make sure that the person you’re sending the content to wants to receive it.
  3. Make sure you’re sending the content to the RIGHT person. Double-check before clicking ‘send’.
  4. Make sure you KNOW the person you’re sending it to, otherwise they might be part of a sextortion scam.

How to protect your digital information:

Mike Bolhuis of Specialised Security Services has some key advice on keeping your digital information safe from hackers:

  • Keep your operating system, web browser, and antivirus programs up to date.
  • Cover the lens on your computer’s webcam when you are not using it.
  • Do not use the same password for multiple sites.
  • Do not click any links or open attachments in an extortion email.
  • Do not engage in any of this activity to start with.

What you can do if you’re a victim of sextortion

Farrell offers the following advice if you are a victim of online abuse:  

  • Make a record of what has been posted online or distributed. Take screenshots if you can, as these can be used as evidence later.
    • Your records should include the date of occurrence, what happened,  evidence that it happened, who you think did it, evidence that they did it, and evidence you still need and information on who might have it.
    • When you are compiling your records include screen shots of web pages that include visible URLs, printouts, text messages that show names and specific dates and times, PDFs, voicemails, and anything else that you’d be comfortable with in the court of law.
    • Make copies of everything.
  • File a police report.
  • File a report of the incident to the administrators on the relevant platform, such as Facebook, Instagram or YouTube. Send the company a copy of your police report to get things moving faster.
  • Consult an attorney.

Severe fines and jail time

Revenge porn is officially a crime in South Africa and is governed by the Films and Publications Amendment Act of 2019, which imposes severe fines and jail time if you:

  • Knowingly distribute private sexual photographs or films without the prior consent of any individual featured.
  • Share these types of photos publicly with the intention to cause harm or distress.
  • Upload private sexual photographs where the person can be clearly identified or is named in any accompanying text.

According to lawforall.co.za : “If the victim can’t be identified in the content, the perpetrator could face two years in jail and/or pay a fine of up to R150 000. However, if the victim can be identified in any way, the perpetrator could spend four years in prison and/or pay up to R300 000.”