With everyone forced indoors and online by the lockdown, cases of cybercrime are increasingPolice advise that individuals take safety measures to protect their information and identities online as criminals too have more time on their hands.
When the lockdown started on March 24, Anoushka Pandey had already been on the receiving end of prolonged abuse from her partner’s former girlfriend for four months. Every day, she received messages, audio and video calls, and voice messages on Facebook and Instagram from fake profiles created to harass her. But when the lockdown forced everyone indoors, the frequency of those posts began to increase.
“I knew that the lockdown would have been an ideal time for my harassers to increase their torment, and I was getting anxious,” Pandey, a 24-year-old who works in the development sector, told the Post.
When the harassment increased significantly in the first week of the lockdown, Pandey decided to reach out to Body and Data, a digital advocacy organisation that works to make the internet safer for all users. On their advice, she outed her abuser on Instagram and filtered her list of followers. This stopped the abuse but Pandey says she hasn’t recovered fully from the mental agony the experience caused her.
The country has been under a strict lockdown for over a month now. The prohibitions on all public movement have meant that everyone is stuck indoors with ample time on their hands, which is leading to a rise in cybercrimes, according to the Nepal Police.
“During the lockdown, most people are at home and are constantly on their computers and on the internet. This has led to an increase in cases of cybercrimes,” said Senior Superintendent Nabinda Aryal, chief of the Nepal Police’s central cyber bureau.
Nearly 200 complaints have been filed at the bureau since the lockdown began on March 24—an average of almost six a day. The bureau recorded around four complaints a day before the lockdown.
Most of the complaints received by the bureau are related to the spread of misinformation, identity theft, harassment through social media, and defamation, according to the Ranipokhari Metropolitan Police Office.
Around two weeks ago, the Central Cyber Bureau looked into a video that was widely shared on social media. In the video, an individual claiming to be a journalist stated that Kathmandu Valley had over 1,500 cases of Covid-19, citing a doctor from the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital. The video was clearly fake as the Kathmandu valley has only reported a total of five cases of Covid-19 so far, all of them recovered. Since the individual on the video was operating a news portal, the police asked the Press Council to take appropriate action for publishing fake news, said an inspector at the cyber bureau.
The lockdown has seen a rise in the digital presence of many individuals, as workplaces, classrooms and meetings have moved online. While these digital tools have enabled people to work and study from home during the lockdown, they’ve also exposed people to all kinds of cyberattacks.
Earlier this month, 500,000 Zoom passwords were available for sale on the dark web for various purposes including ‘zoombombing’, which is when uninvited persons join a meeting. Zoom is a popular videoconferencing application that has reported exponential growth in the number of users ever since the Covid-19 pandemic forced people indoors.
The increased presence of individuals online and the easy availability of their data is a goldmine for cybercriminals, says Baburam Aryal, a lawyer focusing on information technology and cybercrime.
“Visual content is extremely dangerous since it can easily reach perpetrators like paedophiles and online abusers, rendering internet consumers extremely vulnerable,” he said.
Baburam attributes the rise in such crimes to criminals who exploit the fact that many members of the general public might not be aware of safe digital practices. With the lockdown, new users are signing up for services like Zoom, without properly understanding the risks.
As most offices and businesses are closed, criminals and unscrupulous individuals also have more time on their hands to pursue attacks and hacks.
A little over a week into the lockdown, the internet service provider Vianet suffered a data breach, leaking the personal information of over 170,000 customers.
Senior Superintendent Aryal of the cyber bureau says that everyone needs to be more careful while going online, taking preventive measures and being judicious in their activity.
“People should be more careful while using the internet as they can be easily scammed through other individuals and people they know,” he said. “You need to be careful while opening unknown links and giving out personal information.”
Even the World Health Organization recently issued a statement about cybersecurity, warning about suspicious email messages attempting to take advantage of the Covid-19 emergency to steal money and sensitive personal information.
“Hackers and cyber scammers are taking advantage of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic by sending fraudulent email and WhatsApp messages that attempt to trick you into clicking on malicious links or opening attachments,” states the report. “These actions can reveal your user name and password, which can be used to steal money or sensitive information.”
While it is up to individuals to ensure that they are secure while online, police officials say that everyone needs to be aware of what constitutes cybercrime.
“Cybercrime isn’t just limited to the misuse of, and harassment through, social media,” said Aryal. “Everything from the sale of illegal items to stalking and cyber-bullying falls under this category.”