Online privacy through a gendered lens in Bangladesh

9 January 2017

Collage by Namita Aavriti

The ever-growing advancement of information technology is not without perils. Online privacy has been at stake for a while now and the protection of personal information is under attack. We no longer have control over our private data. It is now a commodity up for sale to the highest bidders. And a repository for the state actors who are suspiciously going through it to determine if we can be trusted! Is your privacy more important or national security? This has become one of the most crucial questions since 9/11. Subsequently, private life has become even more vulnerable. In this article, I would like to categorically point out that when it comes to online privacy, women are especially vulnerable.

Laws and social context
Privacy is considered a fundamental right worldwide (well, except in some countries and you know their names!). Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, or to attacks upon his honor and reputation.”

In my country, Bangladesh, Article 43 of our constitution clearly states that “Every citizen shall have the right, subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the State, public order, public morality or public health- (a) to be secured in his home against entry, search and seizure and (b) to the privacy of his correspondence and other means of communication.”

Privacy should be addressed with special care to retain human rights, principles and norms both by government and corporate agencies, especially in an information economy. However, there is no specific privacy policy in a significant number of the organisations who collect people’s private data. It is largely a gray area. Most people are uninformed about the purpose of data collection; whether it is stored safely or not; even whether it will be handed over to a third party without their consent or not.

Most people are uninformed about the purpose of data collection; whether it is stored safely or not; even whether it will be handed over to a third party without their consent or not.

So, to put it in a nutshell, the situation of privacy related issues in Bangladesh is uninspiring at best! Steps taken by the government so far are often contradictory to the constitutional obligations to protect privacy and data protection rights. Bangladesh Telecommunication Act (2001) through an amendment (2006) allowed intelligence agencies to wiretap mobile phones. A special cell comprising of RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) and BTRC (Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission) officials collected users’ detail which includes name, address, login and usage statistics from all the ISPs (Internet Service Providers). Recently a surveillance team namely Bangladesh Computer Security Incident Surveillance Team (BD-CSIRT) was formed to monitor electronic communications to, in their language, ‘protect the national security’. However, there are concerns and doubts from people that the team may cross its limit and be involved with surveilling innocent online communications.
Recently a surveillance team namely Bangladesh Computer Security Incident Surveillance Team (BD-CSIRT) was formed to monitor electronic communications to, in their language, ‘protect the national security’. However, there are concerns and doubts from people that the team may cross its limit and be involved with surveilling innocent online communications.

The world wide web has become our workplace, entertainment, banking, shopping, healthcare and nearly everything we can think of! Since women are traditionally outranked and isolated in the society; they are more in jeopardy compared to their male counterparts. Women are politically relegated and at a further distance from their rights to express opinions . This complex gendered social structure is also evident in the online arena. Women are facing cyberstalking, revenge pornography, hacking, surveillance, blackmailing, cyber bullying etc. Most women are unable to enjoy the same level of privacy that many men take for granted simply because compared to their male counterparts, women lag far behind in technical know-how. It is also assumed that daughters, pregnant women, mothers, and wives should be more responsible for their private conduct than their male counterparts(3,4).

Women are facing cyberstalking, revenge pornography, hacking, surveillance, blackmailing, cyber bullying etc.

The Government of Bangladesh has extended its control over online correspondence by the ICT (Amendment) Ordinance 2013. According to the proposed changes, destroying or misusing computer data with ill motives, hacking computers or intranets and being involved in obscenity would be considered a cognizable and non-bailable offence. The authorities have been empowered to take actions against such activities without a warrant. At the same time, it is not the ‘victims’; only law enforcement or ministry officials would be allowed to go to the court according to the amended law. It is ridiculous that citizens are not allowed to have any judicial support! There is a huge chance of taking advantage of this law in a highly corrupt administration like that of Bangladesh.(5)

The Pornography Control Act of 2012 bans the production, transportation and marketing of any kind of pornographic material. It establishes that if a person produces pornography using a child, and prints, distributes and publishes such material, or sells, supplies or exhibits child pornography, he/she will be punished with up to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of up to BDT 500,000 (USD 6,500). The law also provides maximum five years of rigorous imprisonment for anyone attempting to blackmail or trying to damage a person’s social or individual reputation through the use of porn; this carries a fine up to BDT 200,000 (USD 3,000). He/she would be punished similarly for producing any pornography or forcing or luring any man, woman or child into making pornography and/or taking pictures, video or film with or without their knowledge.(6,7)

The authorities have been empowered to take actions against such activities without a warrant. At the same time, it is not the ‘victims’; only law enforcement or ministry officials would be allowed to go to the court according to the amended law.

Online violence
Incidents like releasing of intimate sexual activities online (also known as revenge porn), harassment and bullying young women in social media etc. have become commonplace in Bangladesh. Such occurrences often lead to suicide attempts and/or self-inflicted injuries. Sadly only a handful of such events see the light of media. Most incidents remain unreported due to the fear of social humiliation, segregation and other forms of social harassment. After all, Bangladesh is an Islamic country.

In February 2013, when the government of Bangladesh established a fast-track court to deal with cybercrimes, Rahman Khan, an assistant director of the BTRC, told AFP, “We are receiving a growing number of complaints about abuse and harassment using fake Facebook IDs, doctoring photos, filming porno footage with mobile phones and posting them on websites, and hacking of websites.” The BTRC sets up a taskforce to deal with cybercrimes last year and it was “overwhelmed with thousands of complaints,” he added. (8)

Sharmin was forced to close a Facebook account that she had been using after she found a number of indecent messages personally addressed to her on her wall. She had no other option but to close the account.(10)

On the eve of September 30, 2011, a doctor visiting a body spa discovered a hidden video camera in the women-only section of the highest rated beauty parlour of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. When she demanded an explanation, the parlour management argued it was placed there for security reasons. Of course! It makes perfect sense! You absolutely must put a live video recording camera in a room where women undress and mostly stay undressed! She and her husband reported this incident to the police who paid a visit to the parlour, but that was the extent of the official action taken. The doctor’s husband erased the video footage from the parlor’s computer. Later, sub-inspector Mehedy Masud of Gulshan police station was suspended on Oct 3 for destroying evidence after seizing a CCTV camera and computer of the beauty parlour and for negligence of duty. On October 10, 2011, the High Court ordered the government to take out all close-circuit TV cameras from beauty parlours on a writ petition filed by Bangladesh Human Rights Foundation chief executive Elina Khan.(9)
Sadia Akter, a victim, told to a daily newspaper, “I had informed BTRC and Bangladesh police after a fake profile of me was opened. But, they couldn’t manage to stop my fake profile. My fake profile is still on Facebook. Another female Facebook user, Irene Akhter, married her classmate after a long affair. Soon after their marriage, they became estranged. Her husband, a vindictive man, posted indecent pictures of her on the internet in retaliation. After the incident, she suffered a mental collapse. Having being rejected by her own family, Irene now lives alone.(11,12)

In the end..
In Bangladesh, there is no privacy law or privacy commission which can safeguard citizen’s privacy. Notably, there is no separate section from a gender perspective in the ICT Act while privacy invasions occur mostly against women.

Additionally, it is necessary to develop the capacity of law enforcement agencies to take effective legal steps while it is part of the responsibility of the BTRC and Police to remove fake profiles and illicit comments online.(13) Unfortunately, they lack expertise. There is no well-equipped IT forensic lab of the law enforcement agencies. Though there is a cybercrime desk in each police station of Dhaka city, hardly any cases are filed under the cybercrimes laws in Bangladesh.(14)

“The harsh reality is Bangladesh Police or BTRC don’t have the technological ability to track down cyber criminals as well as to remove illicit contents from Internet”, says Sumon Ahmed, a cybercrime expert. In Bangladesh, most boys and men have a general impression that cellphones and the internet are the safest means to hurt a woman and get away without punishment. Unfortunately, neither their educational institutions nor their society have any effective awareness raising activities in this regard.

Non-government and civil society organisations are extensively busy with what they consider more pressing social and political issues. The amount of violence against women (VAW) going on in the physical world, how many have the time and resources to tackle VAW in the cyberspace?

In Bangladesh, most boys and men have a general impression that cellphones and the internet are the safest means to hurt a woman and get away without punishment.

The situation will not improve unless ordinary citizens, not just organisations become involved at a greater scale. Every actor from every corner needs to act promptly to keep the cyberspace secure and friendly for women. We need a much larger number of technically sound and active women to take part in social, political and economic development. CSOs as well as women’s organisations can play a vital role to motivate and employ media, government agencies, NGOs, civil societies and academics in accomplishing their goals.

Right now if you, as a woman in Bangladesh, want to stay safe online, you need to learn how technology works.

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Footnotes

1. (2011) Women’s Right to Privacy: Bangladesh Perspective. VOICE.
2. Akter, F. (2015). Communication Surveillance Threatens Privacy and Human Rights: A Case of Bangladesh. Department of Inter-Asia NGO Studies (MAINS). The Graduate School. SungKongHoe University
3. Adam, A., (2005). Gender, Ethics and Information Technology. Palgrave Macmillan.
4. Allen, Anita L. (2000). Gender and Privacy in Cyberspace. P. 1178. Faculty Scholarship. Paper 789. Retrieved November 20, 2016 from http://scholarship.law.upenn.edu/faculty_scholarship/789
5. Barrister, Barua J. (2014, January 1). Amended information technology and communication act. The Daily Star. Retrieved November 13, 2016 from http://www.thedailystar.net/supplements/amended-information-technology-a…
6. Sarker, P., Hasan M., Akhter R., Sakir S. (2013). Global Information Society Watch 2013. Women’s Rights, gender and ICTs. APC and Hivos. Retrieved November 16, 2016 from https://www.giswatch.org/en/country-report/womens-rights-gender/bangladesh
7. Bangladesh enacts an anti-porn law with extreme penalties. Retrieved November 21, 2016 from http://www.censorwatch.co.uk/thread00980_pornography_law_in_bangladesh.htm
8. Sarker, P., Hasan M., Akhter R., Sakir S. (2013). Global Information Society Watch 2013. Women’s Rights, gender and ICTs. APC and Hivos. Retrieved November 16, 2016 from https://www.giswatch.org/en/country-report/womens-rights-gender/bangladesh
9. (2011, October 13). PERSONA CCTV Probe time extended. BDNews24.com. Retrieved November 19, 2016 from http://bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2011/10/13/persona-cctv-probe-time-extended
10. Source: Sarker, P., Hasan M., Akhter R., Sakir S. (2013). Global Information Society Watch 2013. Women’s Rights, gender and ICTs. APC and Hivos. Retrieved November 16, 2016 from https://www.giswatch.org/en/country-report/womens-rights-gender/bangladesh
11. Raihan, A. Cyber Harassment And Women: A Bangladesh Perspective. Retrieved November 18, 2016 from http://www.academia.edu/15789734/Cyber_harassment_and_women_in_Bangladesh
12. Sarker, P., Hasan M., Akhter R., Sakir S. (2013). Global Information Society Watch 2013. Women’s Rights, gender and ICTs. APC and Hivos. Retrieved November 16, 2016 from https://www.giswatch.org/en/country-report/womens-rights-gender/bangladesh
13. Raihan, A. Cyber Harassment And Women: A Bangladesh Perspective. Retrieved November 19, 2016 from http://www.academia.edu/15789734/Cyber_harassment_and_women_in_Bangladesh
14. Sarker, P., Hasan M., Akhter R., Sakir S. (2013). Global Information Society Watch 2013. Women’s Rights, gender and ICTs. APC and Hivos. Retrieved November 16, 2016 from https://www.giswatch.org/en/country-report/womens-rights-gender/bangladesh

 

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