ISS: Cyberspace – new frontiers for gender violence


Recent years have seen an important shift in how security is prioritised, with an emphasis on threats in cyberspace. Last year, the Sony Corporation hack drew attention worldwide, challenging perceptions of state governance and security in cyberspace.

The estimated financial cost of cybercrime worldwide exceeds US$445 billion annually. For individuals, the loss of private and sensitive information is particularly concerning, and a recent poll in the United States (US) shows that Americans fear breaches in cyber security more than any other ‘traditional’ crimes.

Africa has not been immune to increased cybercrime either, with countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa fast becoming hubs of cybercrime activity.

While crimes driven by financial motives and political goals (such as the recent hack of the US Central Command social media profiles by the Islamic State), have alarmed policymakers, new concerns have emerged about technology-facilitated gender-based violence.

The highest-profile attack of this nature was the 2014 cyber hack of many celebrities, overwhelmingly women. Almost 500 personal photographs of various celebrities, including many explicit pictures, were leaked onto the Internet and quickly went viral. It was believed that the pictures were obtained through a breach of Apple’s iCloud system. However, celebrities are not the only victims of such crimes, and there is an increasing number of means through which ordinary people are targeted in cyberspace.

These include personal email accounts being hacked and ‘revenge porn,’ whereby explicit images (taken with or without consent) are distributed without consent. The majority of the victims are women, and the repercussions can be severe. Continued cases of hacking are opening up new discussions on how such crimes may be deemed a type of sexual violence that extends beyond the traditional.

There are also growing concerns about ways in which various forms of violence can be extended through technology. The increase in viral rape videos, which have become particularly commonplace in South Africa, is an example of this kind of violence. There are also major concerns over the use of technology to ‘cyber stalk’ victims. Increases in the availability of information online, for example through location tagging, may facilitate these forms of victimisation and increase risks for victims.

There are numerous other types of sexual and gender-based crimes that occur in cyberspace or are facilitated through technology. These include cyber-bullying and harassment, the exploitation of children facilitated through technology and the distribution of child pornography. Technology has also been used to create spaces where women feel marginalised and threatened based on their gender, and there are numerous instances of extreme misogyny in cyberspace.

The ‘Gamergate’ controversy offers an example that highlights the sexism that, for many, has become prevalent in ‘video game culture.’ In 2014, a female video game developer, Zoe Quinn, released a game that was well received by reviewers. Many involved in the gaming community subsequently accused Quinn of exchanging sexual favours in return for the positive reviews. While the debate was framed to be about the question of impartial game reviewing, it quickly devolved into one of gender-based hate.

Quinn became the victim of numerous online attacks, which became increasingly vicious and included threats of rape and violence. Her online accounts and social media profiles were repeatedly hacked and defaced, and her private photographs distributed online.

Many who came to her defence were also harassed, and a few also became subject to online attacks.

In a similar case, feminist activist Anita Sarkeesian had her private details, including her home address, published online with a number of threats, which led to her cancelling public appearances. The attacks were a response to the development of a series of videos using feminist critique to analyse the representation of women in video games. It is a growing concern that these attacks typify a form of gender discrimination that is prevalent online, particularly in certain online communities who want to limit the representation and participation of women.

It remains incredibly difficult to govern this kind of gender-based victimisation without treading on civil liberties such as freedom of expression. Moreover, the global nature of cyberspace makes it more difficult to develop a shared ideology or norms over what constitutes gender-based violence. The conversation over the governance of the Internet therefore remains fiercely debated on a global scale.

The potential for using technology to facilitate positive change cannot be overstated and, within Africa, women have harnessed technology for various positive purposes, including reporting sexual harassment and increasing freedom of expression. Technology also has the potential to facilitate the prosecution of crimes in cases of gender-based violence. In the recent cases of Shrien Dewani and Oscar Pistorius in South Africa, information gathered from electronic devices was used as evidence.

Further work needs to be done to develop legislation and practices in Africa to allow this to be done more frequently. Yet, at the same time, the victimisation of women within a sphere that is increasingly important and ungoverned, makes it cause for concern. Balancing these two integral values will become an increasing global imperative.

Written by Khalil Goga, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.