October 30, 2023No Comments

Violence against women in the cyber domain – the impact of covid and what still needs to be done?

Author: Maria Makurat (Human Rights Team), with a contribution from Julia Hodgins (Culture, Society & Security Team)


Physical violence against women is a topic that is being addressed by several institutions and organizations but what about the cyber domain? Cyber violence is not a new concept but the coronavirus pandemic has brought about new challenges and one has even seen a surge of the issue. This was discussed by UN Women in a report stating that the Covid pandemic had an impact on online harassment. This drew attention to women experiencing online harassment which can have lasting detrimental effects. This article explores the developing issue of violence against women in the cyber-domain by first considering various definitions to then highlighting case studies by looking at reports, literature and case studies in order to suggest possible questions that remain.

Defining violence against women in the cyber domain

Firstly, one needs to define what violence against women in the cyber domain entails. In the past years, there have been several definitions by scholars, institutions and organizations. It makes it challenging since what exactly do “aggression” and “violence” such as “hate speech” in the cyber domain mean? The discourse surrounding finding a definition of online gender-based violence shows that a strong debate exists however, as technology evolves, wider definitions are needed to include all forms of online violence.

When considering violence against women in the cyber-domain, then one automatically wonders what is “violent” in this case? Traditional international relations theories surrounding violence have been around for a while. Finlay for instance points out that one should not only consider “violence” by itself but extend it to “violent agency” with the following components: “defined first by a double intention (1) to inflict harm using a technique chosen (2) to eliminate or evade the target’s means of escaping it or defending against it. Second, the harms it aims at are destructive (as opposed to appropriative).”  

Looking further at “aggression” and “violence” in relation to cyber, defining said terms has its challenges. "Defining “aggression” is a complex, in and itself controversial endeavour, as it relates to a tense exchange between at least two actors. Complexity grows as, increasingly often, aggressions become invisible - or blurry at the very least. Complications keep growing when the subject is situated in the scope of gender relations. Still now worldwide, at varying degrees, physical violence against women remains officialised, i.e., state violence exerted by the Iranian Moral Police to ‘rein in’ female transgressors is legal and inconsequential. Complications exponentially increase when translating gender relations into cyberspace, due to both inherent challenges of cyberspace (obscureness, non-territoriality/territoriality, low threshold for entry and exit, easy concealment) and the assumption of cyber being at least gender-neutral, if not male-dominated by default. Nevertheless, constructivism suggests that security is not neutral as social factors (ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, class, etc.) allocate power, and power between actors underpins exchanges, particularly aggressions. To define aggression, exchanges are often de-constructed, and contrasted to a threshold set under the influence of power stances, perceived vulnerabilities, and mindsets about the actors in question."(contribution by Julia Hodgins).

There seems to be growing concern about online violence against female journalists and a need for guidelines on how to monitor, and evaluate this issue. This can be highlighted by looking at the recent guidelines and a report published by the OSCE in 2023 which provides a definition of what exactly “gender-based online violence” in relation to female journalists means: “sexist and misogynistic involving frequently threats of physical and/or sexual violence; sexualized abuse and harassment; digital privacy and security breaches that can expose identifying information and exacerbate offline safety threats facing the target; and networked or mob harassment.” (…) often bound with gendered disinformation.” Furthermore, the OSCE identifies eight features of gender-based online violence: misogynistic, frequently networked, it radiates, it is intimate, it can be extreme, behave like ‘networked gaslighting’, extreme in intersectional discrimination and contains disinformation.

Looking at definitions discussed by scholars, Lews, Rowe and Wiper looked at the issue from a criminology point of view stating that there are gaps in the literature and a “failure to develop a robust gendered analysis, a lack of comparative analysis of online and offline VAWG and a lack of victimological examination of online abuse experienced by women and girls.” A press release by the European Council in November 2021 stated again, that one needs clearer definitions of what online gender-based violence means in order to then have more concise laws put in place. The recommendation states that one should define the issue as “the digital dimension of violence against women.”

The latest definition by UN Women defines online-violence against women as follows: “Technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TF GBV) is any act that is committed, assisted, aggravated or amplified by the use of information communication technologies or other digital tools which results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual, psychological, social, political or economic harm or other infringements of rights and freedoms.” Notably this definition extends the scope in order to include any act in relation to online violence.

As one can see, definitions are still being worked out and this is also an essential process when wanting to put stronger laws in place. States need international definitions in order to also have joint measurements against online violence. In the following, case studies of online violence will be highlighted to discuss the still pressing-issue.

Case studies of online-violence and future concerns

The issue of violence against women in the cyber-domain started very early and continues to be a growing threat and pressing issue today. Gurumurthy and Menon highlighted the said issue in 2009. They point out women (in India for example) having been filmed during rape and then posted on social-media platforms in order to maintain the cycle of violence. Another issue they discuss is that women have committed suicide in Kerala as a result of online harassment causing a stir in discussions.

UN Women released a report in 2015, stating that urgent action needs to be taken in order to combat violence against women in the cyber domain. The report calls out the failure of implementing sustainable goals and achievements in reducing online violence against women and proposes that one needs better sanctions, a sensitization by implementing trainings and campaigns to change social attitudes as well as a more responsible internet infrastructure. Despite these reports, one has seen a significant impact of the corona pandemic on online violence against women. Reports have shown that women experience an increasing amount of online violence: “Cyber harassment and cyberbullying have increased by 50% during quarantine in Australia. Simultaneously, the United Kingdom data shows that the number of complaints about visual sexual harassment doubled in March 2020.”

Source: Photo by Joshua Gandara on Unsplash

Online violence against women is very complex and many factors play a role which means, tackling the issue needs sustainable goals that also address several factors. There is growing concern about violence against women working in politics or other public sectors. Women who express their opinions online very often receive violent threats and are coerced into retreating from the public sector and keeping a low profile. Articles and reports state that there is even a concern about women retreating from the political sector. Moreover, there seems to be a relation between crisis and gender-based violence and the consummation of online porn. The Government Equalities Office has released research on the relation between pornography use and harmful sexual attitudes and behaviors.  The reports come to the conclusion that pornography is one of the factors that “contribute to a permissive and conducive context that allows harmful sexual attitudes and behaviours to exist against women and girls.” 

If one has been developing better definitions and implanting debates, then why does the issue continue to be a growing concern? These concerns and trends show that one needs stronger initiatives, sanctions, and focused debates to tackle the issue at hand. In the following, it will be briefly highlighted what projects have been launched to tackle online violence.

What are some initiatives?

UN Women launched 2020 a project called “Fireflies Campaign against Gender-Based Cyber Violence.” The campaign specifically addressed the issue of online gender-based violence during the coronavirus pandemic and had the goal to specifically use social media to draw attention to the issue and engage the public in the discourse. One of the key findings was that more women (81%) than men (70%) reported online harassment cases.

One major step that has been taken is the UK’s reform of online violence. A press release by The Government of the UK from the 23rd of June 2023 states: “Abusers who share intimate images without consent to face up to 6 months in prison.” Also, deepfakes were criminalized for the first time which has to be considered for future debate: “For the first time, sharing of ‘deep fake’ intimate images – explicit images of videos which have been digitally manipulated to look like someone else – will also be criminalized.” The reform has the goal to facilitate the prosecution of individuals who publish intimate images without consent. Now it would be the question if other states will follow suit in placing stricter laws against cyber violence. For instance, Germany doesn’t have a specific law against cyber violence yet. They include the offences in the general law of insult or threats. 

In countries such as Rwanda and Tanzania, women increasingly (have to) use the internet for work. This has also increased violence against women in the cyber-domain and calls for the need for better laws and safer realms. An initiative called Women@web helps “journalists, politicians, and human rights activists, among others, who have been confronted with various forms of gender-based online violence.” It is stated again that ever since the corona pandemic, they have seen an increase in online violence. Furthermore, studies conducted by Women@web have found out that women often censor their own comments online to avoid “cyberbullying”. In order to tackle this, Women@web offers modules on: “digital rights, digital citizenship, digital platforms, digital security, digital storytelling and digital resilience. Focusing on these topics, regular training sessions are held for women in the four countries. The aim is to increase the overall digital literacy among women and empower them to remain in online spaces.” 


These initiatives already draw a lot of attention to the issue at hand however, many questions remain such as whether the UK reform will bring other states to follow suit. Also, social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have started becoming stricter in their policies on what people can comment on and what not. Search engines track whether someone posts explicit language or sends explicit images. These are all measures that show steps in the right direction however the question remains, when a new crisis comes (such as the corona pandemic) will it contribute to another surge of online violence? Online violence against women is not a recent new topic but a steady emergent issue. With growing technology, women on the one hand have more access to online help lines and initiatives but on the other hand, are facing new threats such as AI in relation to ‘deepfakes’. This calls for stronger sanctions and perhaps more focused campaigns launched towards a young audience to educate on this issue and its repercussions.

June 26, 2023No Comments

Cultural Question and Cyber Quandary: Making Sense Of TikTok Bans Worldwide

Authors: Maria Makurat (Cyber Security and AI Team) and Anurag Mishra (USA Team)

TikTok and the “Ban Hammer”

The debate of apps such as TikTok being a security threat to individuals as well as countries has been going on for a while. Several articles, studies and other blog articles have been, and are still being released on this hot topic. One of the main concerns remains: TikTok is collecting data of users against their consent whilst one is also not using the app. Since TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese-owned company, many Western countries and especially the US are highly sceptical and states such as Montana have even taken the initiative to ban the app altogether. What does this mean for cyber as well as cultural security issues? Many factors and international events surround this debate such as TikTok already being banned in India, the issues of the Chinese state  being seen as a spy and whether one can see TikTok as a surveillance weapon? Cyber security as well as cultural issues tie into the debate where we see theories of whether we have a “cyber war” in relation to social media platforms as well as cultural matters if TikTok is having a negative impact on countries. This article explores the issues highlighted above and opens up possible questions that still need to be asked.

Montana Mounts a “Blackout Challenge” to TikTok

Senate Bill #149 of the 68th legislature of Montana, which was introduced by state senator Shelley Vance makes the offering of the app on any application store illegal and prescribes a fine of $10,000 per day for each time someone accesses TikTok, “is offered the ability” to access it, or downloads it. Governor Greg Gianforte, a Republican from Montana, had approved the law on anticipating potential legal challenges. Although the law is not set to be enforced until January 1, 2024, there are doubts about the state's ability to implement it effectively. The impact of this new legislation in Montana is expected to be more significant than the existing TikTok bans already implemented on government devices in approximately half of the states and at the federal level in the United States.

From the outside, the one-of-a-kind ban looks like an assault on ByteDance’s data-gathering exercise but also has a deeper purpose of extinguishing the app’s ability to influence the impressionable youth of America.

One of the major reasons why TikTok became the conservative eyesore and a major cause of worry for parents was the “Blackout Challenge.” Also known as the "choking challenge" or the "pass-out challenge," it involved urging individuals to hold their breath until they lose consciousness as a result of insufficient oxygen. While the Blackout Challenge was the biggest troubling online challenge, causing as many as 20 children to lose their lives, a slew of similar troubling trends made TikTok infamous. "Dry-scooping," climbing on tall stacks of milk crates, removing your own IUD, and eating massive amounts of frozen honey and corn syrup, and the list goes on.

The problem with TikTok does not end there. When juxtaposed with the wider scheme of things, TikTok appears to be one of the many arrows in the Chinese quiver. The issue of Chinese Police Stations coming up on the United States’ territory has landed many in the stew and has made the American government restive. Taking a leaf out of India and some European countries’ books, several states in the US decided to ban TikTok on office/government-issued phones and devices. As of April, 34 American states have banned TikTok on government-issued devices. The idea behind banning the mischievous app has largely been to secure any data leaks. India was the first country to ban TikTok and several other Chinese mobile applications nationwide, citing national security concerns. India banned TikTok as early as June 2020. At first, the ban was seen as a mild yet conclusive response to the PLA’s misadventure across the Sino-Indian border, but as more countries put restraints on the Chinese app, the Indian government’s official position on the ban seems to have been vindicated.

Reservations and concerns abound TikTok and have only gone on to grow in the past three years. Not just the adversaries and rivals but even allies like Pakistan and North Korea have blocked TikTok. The question nevertheless remains whether TikTok is just an online pastime or a phisher. 

Source: Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/PuNW11NRjI4

Weapon of Mass Surveillance: TikTok and its Cyber Security Issues?

The debate surrounding TikTok being a security issue has been around for a while. Several individuals as well as companies had their doubts but as of around April 2023, one has been seeing a surge in states and countries being serious about banning the popular app. The major concern lies within the fact that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company and several discrepancies have arisen concerning the security of the app. It is being repeatedly “expressed that TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, may put sensitive user data, like location information, into the hands of the Chinese government.” This together with political tensions between Russia, China and the West in relation to the Ukraine war add to the TikTok debate with companies being concerned that data is being stolen. Countries find themselves recently in much more complicated relations.

One can link this to traditional international affairs theories such as whether we will even have a “cyber war” (discussion by Thomas Rid)  and how social media is being “weaponized” (discussed by P.W. singer, Emerson T. Brooking and Dr Andreas Krieg). “In so doing, social media has evolved from a mere distraction machine into a tool of sociopolitical power, galvanising public awareness and civil-societal activism.” It is being discussed that ever since the 2016 elections in the US with Russian interference, that other social media platforms, where TikTok can possibly also be an instrument, can be used to spread false information and not only be used as a tool by itself to collect data. Countries such as Germanyalso increasingly see the issue of social media platforms being used to spread false information as well as collecting data (BIS: Bundesamt für Sicherheit in der Informationstechnik). The so-called “Digitalbarometer 2020” released by the BIS, stated that in Germany for the year 2020, every fourth individual was affected by some type of cyber-attack and every third was affected financially. Whilst Germany has not released a law that forbids the use of TikTok, it is being discussed by the Federal Minister of the Interior and Community that one needs to stay alert and be aware of the possible consequences.

This issue is also being discussed very intensely by scholars such as Dr Andreas Krieg (recent work “Subversion - The strategic weaponization of narratives”) and Dr Kathleen Hall Jamieson (Cyber-War : How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President). We see both now in the international affairs academic world as well as the communications and cultural disciplines a debate, on how social media platforms are being weaponized (see also this blog article on hate speech on social media). Now perhaps more than ever, interdisciplinary communication between different academic strands is needed to address the issue. So we see it is not only the issue of TikTok being owned by a Chinese company and the possible spread of false information but also the physical issue of collecting data. We have both cultural/ethical and cyber security issues.

To Ban, or Not to Ban?

To mitigate the goodwill loss and the loss of business that TikTok has encountered, it would be wise for the company to make itself more transparent and even sell stakes, as beseeched by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. The company will also need to come clean on the accusations of data theft and spying. The root of all remains the involvement of the Chinese state in its corporate entities and in the long run, such involvement will not go unnoticed by the countries hosting Chinese businesses. When considering all these factors, open questions remain such as if we will see other countries following suit in banning TikTok and how likely is it that more organisations will take action? Do we see a certain cyber war taking place in the realm of social media or is it more an issue of moral and ethical values? Younger generations still use TikTok in their daily life, especially since this is also linked to businesses (such as Infleuncers as well as big companies) which could prove problematic in the future. Perhaps stronger rules are required that regulate the use of TikTok and its data collection if the app is to be further used. It remains to be seen how this develops and whether individuals will be concerned with the use of the app.

February 7, 2023No Comments

Space Warfare: How are offensive military operations conducted in Space?

This is a transcript of an indepth interview with Paul S. Szymanski who has a 49 year experience conducting military operations research analyses for the United States Air Force and Space Force, Navy, Army and Marines. These include outer space program analysis, management, and development of space warfare theory, policy, doctrine, strategies, tactics and techniques. He has worked with the Air Staff at the Pentagon (Secretary of the Air Force), the Space and Missiles Systems Center (Now SSC) in Los Angeles, and the Air Force Research Labs (AFRL) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, along with experience in operational field testing of missile systems at China Lake, California. He is the author of several publications. This transcript is second in a three-part series of content extracted from an interview with Mr. Szymanski.

Interviewed and Edited by: Danilo delle Fave.

Image Source: pexels.com

What are some of the potential threats in Space?

Cyber Attacks: The most popular means of attack against space systems where the entire spectrum of space systems is vulnerable to these attacks. Each country is vulnerable to such hacking. A smaller/poorer country can purchase a surplus satellite (or critical parts thereof) and then conduct hacker contests against these test satellites with significant cash prizes to the teams that cause the best effects against these space system. The same techniques can be employed to train individuals on how to penetrate space ground systems. All of these space systems, including space jammers, are readily available on the commercial market for installation in your country of choice.

Terrestrial Attacks: Any country on Earth has special forces that can penetrate adversary ground systems (satellite control stations, RADARS, Optical Space Tracking Telescopes, etc.). These special forces can insert cyber codes into critical systems, install mines, etc. In addition, spy networks can be employed to “turn” the loyalties of adversary space technicians to influence them to insert threat cyber codes and sabotage critical adversary space systems on the ground.

Space Surveillance Systems: In order to achieve smart space control, a country needs to better understand the orbits, status and capabilities of their adversary space systems. This can readily be achieved through ground-based RADARS and optical imagery/tracking systems. Optical tracking systems can be assembled using amateur astronomy telescopes, and many amateurs employ these around the World in this role. They do not cost that much, are fully automated, and can be placed on the rooftops of country embassies around the World, particularly in countries that have good weather conditions and visibility to space. With such situational knowledge, a poorer country can attack an adversary satellite at the same time a third country is “visiting” the targeted space system with an inspector/rendezvous satellite in order to place the attack blame on another country.

Laser Attacks: Currently, consumers can openly purchase hand-held 7.5-watt laser systems. Attach one of these to the above-mentioned astronomical telescope, and with the proper alignment techniques, a poorer country can blind an adversary imaging satellite, or maybe even spoof its Earth limb sensors. With even much more powerful and better collimated industrial lasers, a second world country may even be able to permanently damage these sensors. In the least, one should be able to initiate satellite self-defense mechanisms (close sensor shutters, roll satellite) that will take the attacked satellite systems offline for hours if not days, rendering it ineffective during some critical time during a terrestrial battle.

December 17, 2021No Comments

ITSS Verona 2021/22 Webinars Series: “Cyber Security in Italy” featuring Andrea Rigoni

For its third event of the 2021/22 Webinar Series, ITSS Verona members Ludovica Brambilla, Chiara Aquilino, Sarah Toubman, and Julia Hogdings discuss with world-leading cyber security expert Andrea Rigoni the question of cyber security in Italy, with particular reference to the creation of the new Cyber Security Agency and its current and future implications.