LEA Working Group on the Role of Gender in Cybercrime
The CC-DRIVER LEA Working Group addressed in its 6th Edition the role of gender in cybercrime. Said meeting took place virtually on Wednesday 16th June 2022, and it was discussed how and why women and girls experience more cyber-violence in its many forms. Perpetrators tend to be partners, ex-partners or even strangers depending of the specific cyber offence. Women who are public figures (influencers, journalists, women’s rights defenders, etc.) experience this more commonly and harshly. This makes women feel less safe, it threatens their freedom of speech and can even coerce them into being silenced.
Another point that was raised was that many times, technology is biased, favouring men: as stated in CC-DRIVER’s article “Women in Cyber - Part I: Cybersecurity Failing Women”, biometric software, for example, has more trouble recognising female than male faces. “Smart” devices tend to misunderstand women; because they are trained to think like white men do, thus having trouble identifying those who aren’t. However, this is an issue that affects not only security or cybersecurity, and it also affects the tools and their further functions.
It is further troublesome that the percentage of women experiencing cyber-harassment has risen through the years, increasing from 20% on 2014 as stated in the Violence against EU women survey form the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, to almost 60% in 2020 as the The State of the World’s Girls Report on Girls and young women’s experiences on online harassment shows. Although both studies examine different countries, the increasing trend is relevant.
On the other hand, the crimes that primarily affect women are related to the abuse of intimate images, with a rate of almost 75% as a study from the University of Exeter including 600 women shows, then Cyberstalking, followed by online Sexual Coercion and Extortion, Grooming and Online Hate Speech. The majority of women victims of Abuse of Intimate Images are aged between 16 and 18. That this interval starts ranging from 16 is connected to the fact that in many countries that’s the legal age of consent for sex. This means that those sharing these images would be committing a different crime, and the victims will be suffering a different type of abuse than those under this age.
The aforementioned research also shows that police do not always have positive results in the cases of Abuse of Intimate Images. First, there is a lot of underreporting (between 60-80%). Additionally, around 70% of victims have had a negative police experiences for several reasons: because there may be a lack of specific laws or in some cases LEAs have little knowledge of the applied legislation; the victims’ opinions have been dismissed; the wider context of the abuse has been ignored and in some cases they even sided with the perpetrator. This issue is particularly aggravated by the fact that cyber-abuse is not usually seen as a critical threat, since the damage is psychological rather than physical, and therefore it is taken less seriously. LEAs have a lot of room for improvement in these regards, such as expanding their online presence and information sharing, and that’s the precise reason to hold meetings like this.
Valencia Local Police also shared some results of RAYUELA, the sister project of CC-DRIVER, which addresses young cyber-criminality: there is a difference in the strategies carried out by online groomers depending on the victim’s gender. For example, way more women (75% women / 31% men) suffered deception, the same applies to coercion (31% women / 11% men suffered it) and blackmailing strategies. Falsification of identity to be contacted represents this trend too (77% women / 18% men suffered it).
The next topic was human trafficking, which also fits in the pattern and has a majority of female victims. Research shows differences in strategies to approach the victim regarding gender, and it has virtually no female perpetrators. This latter part also applies to the whole of cybercrimes, and in the few cases the perpetrator is a woman, the severity of the crime tends to be lower. In fact there is a lack of studies or researches about female perpetrators in relation to cyber-crimes. This also adds to what PEW’s 2014 research shows, that even when the perpetrator is suspected to be a female, in many cases, there’s a huge difficulty to prove it, and very often the perpetrator is a man impersonating a woman. This results in a huge hindrance to study the behaviour of perpetrators and what is really behind those crimes, something that particularly affects LEAs since they have to know how to take proper counter-measures and to increase the reporting of these crimes.
Furthermore, the cyber-crimes committed by female perpetratorsare more general in nature: there is a use of social engineering or the misuse of legitimate access rather than technical implementations, where there is for instance a use of malware or code injection. Gender does not only affect cyber-crimes and how they are committed, but also cybersecurity: 25% of professionals were women in 2020-2021, which is an increase since 2018’s 11%, but still needs to be improved. This answers to the fact that it is not only hard to get positions in that field for women, but also to keep them. An app was mentioned during the meeting, Cyb-HER, whose purpose is to empower women in cyber-security and the internet.
In the conference call the rise of cybercrime during the pandemic was also discussed, focusing on the rise of stalkerware linked to the increase of domestic violence. It is worth noting in this regard that confinement and lockdown measures have exposed more people (including minors) to cybercriminals.
On the other side, LEAs had to face many problems regarding cyber-crime since there may be a different terminology employed depending on the country, which affects statistics, as well as a lack of common policies and cross-border problems. In order to fight these issues good practices and recommendations were shared among the LEA participants, which included educating others in the proper use and knowledge of the Internet (enhancing Internet literacy), warning not only young generations but also parents about its dangers, and having realistic expectations of self-esteem, which is key for potential victims of human trafficking; creating awareness and prevention campaigns in schools, universities and media; innovative campaigns such as 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence; collaboration and information sharing, adapting the penal system and addressing underreporting.
On a final note, at the end of the meeting the CYBERSPACE project was presented, which focuses on enhancing cybersecurity, improving cooperation and the reporting of cyberattacks in the EU.
Photo credits: © Council of Europe