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There is a person behind the screen: why cyber security needs a humanistic approach


Written by
Shruti P.

MSc Cyber Security student Shruti explores how she believes cyber harassment has gained a foothold in India and calls for a human-centred approach to combat cyber attacks. 

Woman stands in a blue light as a yellow code is reflected on her face

The words Cyber Security often instil an image of supercomputers working in binary code or an anonymous mask maliciously smiling at a computer screen. While these images popularised by pop culture are often exaggerated, the maliciousness in cyber-attacks is very real. One aspect often overlooked during cyber security discussions is individual security and privacy. In India, for example, the Right to Privacy only became a fundamental right in 2017. As social media takes over our lives, the cyber threat from these online platforms becomes more pronounced. Thus, it becomes imperative to take a human-centred approach while discussing cyber security. 

Online communities have historically provided a safe space for women, queer people, and people from other marginalised communities. However, in the last few years, targeted harassment towards these communities has gained a stronger foothold. All social media platforms proudly display their anti-hate policies to protect users online and prevent cyber harassment. However, these policies only discuss a limited amount of strict outdated scenarios, while the online space constantly evolves. This problem becomes even more profound in multilingual communities, as social media platforms only apply rules against the English language,  

In Indian online spaces, for example, cyber attackers and trolls have designed several ways to evade suspension while constantly spewing vitriol and abuse. One such way is to use codified abusive words in regional languages. This phenomenon is visible in the entire “desi” Twitter but the most prominently targeted users are women and people from marginalised communities. The abuse does not stop at misogynistic expletives, but also includes rampant Islamophobia and homophobia.  

According to a survey conducted by Feminism in India, a woman journalist reported receiving more than 300 abusive messages every day. Research by Amnesty International concluded that 7.1% of tweets sent to the women in the study were “problematic” or “abusive”. It is worth mentioning here that every social media platform has some form of a rule regarding “Targeted harassment against a person for their Race, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation and Religion”. 

So, if all social media platforms have strict rules regarding cyber harassment, how does abuse still occur? One view on the ineffectiveness of cyber security rules for individual security on social media platforms tells us that there has been little to no research on real-life issues. Most of these security measures assume that all social media users will write in perfect English, where harassment and abuse can be easily identified by automation tools.  

Here, the human-centred approach argument comes into play. A human-centred approach can lead us to first understand, and then tackle online abuse. In-depth research in a country’s socio-political scenario to understand the various ways cyber harassment can manifest itself, and then creating empathetic policies to combat this can be effective. Creating spaces where users can provide their input can be extremely helpful in formulating policies as they experience the extent of this crisis daily. The automation process for content moderation needs to be combined with other region and language-specific safeguards to better protect the users. Prompt and effective response by the enforcement authorities builds trust between users and companies. Transparent and fair reporting regarding abusive content can prove to be a referral point for future security measures. Such reports can also be valuable for individuals and companies seeking to understand the trends in cyber harassment and ways to combat the crisis. 

The first step in combining cyber security with human-centred thinking is to understand there is a person behind the screen. Cyber harassment is not just a security issue, it can also greatly impact the victim’s mental and physical well-being. As a cyber security student, my most important goal is to be empathetic and think of ways I can make the online space safer for everyone. 

Shruti studies MSc Cyber Security in India.