cyber crime

In India, blackmailers are making threats with sex videos obtained by hacking computers, webcams

It was first considered a hoax, but at least 13 people have filed complaints saying their private sexual information is being used to extort money from them.

Almost two years ago, Black Mirror, a British science fiction television series, telecast Shut Up and Dance, the third episode of its third season. In the story, the protagonist Kenny, a teenager, is blackmailed into committing criminal acts by unknown online enemies who possess a video of him masturbating to porn on his computer. As the sinister plot unfolds, Kenny realises he is not the only victim of the blackmailers.

In India, going by complaints made with the cyber cells of police departments in several states, anonymous blackmailers operating in a similar fashion have targeted at least 13 people between January 1 and August 4. The complaints have come from states like Delhi, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Senior police officials say these complaints are probably just the tip of the iceberg, as in most cases the victims prefer to approach discreet private cyber security consultants for help.

Initially, there was some scepticism even among security agencies that such threats could be part of an elaborate hoax designed to con people into thinking that they might have been filmed watching porn. But in at least one case examined by the police, the blackmailer had uploaded a video and the investigators suspected that the video was acquired by planting a malware in the victim’s computer.

According to the police, several complainants have urged them to intervene without filing a First Information Report as that would later materialise into a case, which has to be pursued in court. A senior police officer said this is because the victims – on account of embarrassment or shame – do not want their families to get even the slightest inkling of the online activity they believe they are being blackmailed about.

In an email to Scroll.in, a woman who identified herself as lesbian, said that she believed that such blackmailers were particularly targeting members of the vulnerable lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-transsexual-queer community.

Ransom demands

Of the 13 complaints known to have been made before the police so far, 12 have been filed by men. The complainants are aged between 18 and 45 years.

According to police officials who requested anonymity, in some instances, the complainants have said that their sexually explicit video chats had been recorded by blackmailers with the help of a malware – a program developed to disrupt, damage or help gain unauthorised access to someone’s computer system. A few complainants have said that their blackmailers had remotely activated their webcams and had recorded them masturbating. Other complaints say that the anonymous perpetrators scanned their computers looking for pornographic content – including videos that victims might have recorded of themselves having sex – and saved the files.

All victims have received emails in which a demand has been made for payment via bitcoins. The amounts range between $200 and $1,900. The stress on the cryptocurrency is to prevent security agencies from tracing the transactions, police officials said.

Targeting the vulnerable

A researcher in Delhi, who identifies as gay, received one such email on June 27. The sender disclosed the victim’s email password, which was correct, and asked him for $1,400 in bitcoins as payment for not releasing to his list of email contacts a video of him masturbating. The email, which Scroll.in has seen, says that the sender had hacked into the recipient’s computer via malware sent through a link on a porn website that the recipient had allegedly visited. The email says that once embedded within the computer, the malware helped the sender access the recipient’s webcam through which he was recorded in the act.

The researcher did not approach the police or respond to the email as he was confident that his computer’s security had not been compromised.

Others were perhaps not as confident.

According to the police complaints, one of the blackmail victims was engaged in an extramarital affair and also participated in sexually explicit chats on the internet with another woman. Another victim, a young corporate executive, had indulged in a sexually explicit chat with a woman from a conservative family and was worried that all hell would break loose if this got out. “In other cases, it was mostly fear of being judged in a closed society like ours,” the police official said.

‘Believable threat’

Vineet Kumar, founder of Cyber Peace Foundation, a grassroots level organisation which helps several security agencies in research and training related to cyber security, said that the email threat was quite believable. “The process which the hacker has elaborated on makes sense,” he said. “But there are ways to protect oneself which include reliance on good anti-virus and firewalls, maintaining utmost privacy on social media applications, going for genuine operating systems and regularly updating them and, most importantly, never clicking on any link sent through any dubious website or email.”

Referring to the fact that several such emails received by people worldwide have included the victim’s current or old email password, possibly in order to convince people that the threat was real, cyber security expert and journalist Brian Krebs said in a post on his website: “My guess is that the perpetrator has created some kind of script that draws directly from the usernames and passwords from a given data breach at a popular Web site that happened more than a decade ago, and that every victim who had their password compromised as part of that breach is getting this same email at the address used to sign up at that hacked Web site.”

Passwords can also be accessed via malware.

According to Kislay Chaudhary, another cyber security expert who is a consultant with several government agencies, once malware is planted, it is possible for the hacker to access anything, including passwords of which the malware creates a mirror image in the hacker’s computer. “It is a variation of the ransomware phenomenon in which the hacker, instead of encrypting the files of the target computer, blackmails the victim through other means,” said Chaudhary. “The style of operation is the same – mass plantation of malware links and then waiting for victims.”

Interpol, a network of police forces from 190 countries all over the world, categorises this kind of blackmail as “sextortion”. “Sextortion is defined as blackmail in which sexual information or images are used to extort sexual favours and/or money from the victim,” Interpol says on its website. “This online blackmail is often conducted by sophisticated organised criminal networks operating out of business-like locations similar to call centres.” The term can refer to conventional honey-trapping (for instance, where people are enticed to expose themselves online or offline and then blackmailed), as well as to extortion in connection with sexual information obtained through the installation of malware.

Vulnerable communities?

The woman who wrote to Scroll.in expressing concern that members of the LGBTQ community were being targeted by such hackers, said three of her friends had been victims of the scam. She added that she believed members of the LGBTQ community were particularly vulnerable to being scammed because “most LGBTQ individuals take to digital platforms to network and connect with similar-minded people” and because the law in India still defines intercourse between homosexual couples as an unnatural act which is punishable with imprisonment that can extend up to 10 years.

She did not respond to emails asking for further details.

The Delhi researcher explained how members of the LGBTQ community could be vulnerable to being blackmailed online. He said that some members participate in closed social networks online to meet other members of the community. Sometimes, people infiltrate such networks, using a fake profile. Though such fake profiles are usually caught out, there is always the possibility that someone with a fake profile could successfully enter the closed network and gain access to details about some members, which could then be used to blackmail them.

“However, I myself, have not noticed any trend of individuals belonging to the LGBTQ community being specifically targeted,” said the researcher.

Asked if individuals belonging to vulnerable groups were specifically being targeted by such hackers, a senior police official said it was difficult to say. “They [the complainants] simply request us to remove the [uploaded] content and not pursue a case, which can be done without digging into such sensitive private details,” one police officer said.

To negotiate or not to negotiate

Demands for ransom in cryptocurrency gained massive attention worldwide during the WannaCry ransomware attacks last year during which several companies and people were blocked from accessing their computer systems until they paid a ransom to the hacker.

The latest scheme to demand ransom apparently spread worldwide within two years of it first being reported, with each version taking on a more sophisticated form than the last.

Around the time when Shut Up and Dance premiered on Netflix in 2016, BBC had published an investigative report called the Skype Sex Scam. In this online scam, victims were enticed to befriend people they thought to be young women, via the internet. They were later entrapped into indulging in sexual acts in front of their webcams, and subsequently blackmailed with the footage. There was no malware involved here, and shame at being exposed was the key then, as now. The BBC documented several victims of this scam from across the globe and even traced its perpetrators, most of whom were unemployed men in Morocco.

By late 2017, emails similar to that received by the Delhi-based researcher had surfaced online. They seemed to follow a template. The common factors were: a reference to malware sent through porn websites that gave the hacker access to the victim’s computer, a threat that the hackers had recorded masturbation videos via webcam, and then a demand for ransom in bitcoin. The differences are: the ransom amount, the tone of the letter – which apparently turned sombre with time – and the bitcoin address.

By early this year, authorities in Western countries were advising victims not to negotiate with the perpetrators. Like in phishing – the fraudulent practice of sending emails purporting to be from reputable companies in order to induce individuals to reveal personal information, such as passwords – the perpetrators of sextortion could indeed be bluffing, it was suggested, and targeting several thousands of people in the hope that at least some will pay up.

But cyber crime consultant Kislay Chaudhary said he is privy to one instance in which the victim’s video was uploaded by the hacker for refusing to pay up. The video was later taken down, and was uploaded again only to be taken down again. “But these are all band-aid type solutions,” he said. There has to be more awareness about cyber hygiene and it is high time for the government to take it up.”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.