AI Among Technologies Increasingly Used To Harass Women Online In Pakistan

DRF Cyber Harassment Helpline Report's annual report recommends that the government address the digital gender divide by removing barriers to internet and device access for women, FIA increasing physical complaint centres

AI Among Technologies Increasingly Used To Harass Women Online In Pakistan

The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to attack and harass women online is growing along with apps that steal data from devices of targetted women who are then subjected to financial fraud and blackmail. While the government juggled resources to address cases, the social media platforms, where many campaigns were, run and harassment happened, were not very cooperative.

This was contained in the Digital Rights Foundation's (DRF) seventh annual Cyber Harassment Helpline Report for 2023. The report shared data about the calls that the free helpline operated by the research-based non-governmental organisation received and pursued regarding cyber harassment.

In 2023, DRF said its helpline received 2,473 new complaints, with an average of 206 new complaints received each month. The helpline, dedicated to addressing tech-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV), received the most complaints in February 2023.

Women were the highest reported victims of online harassment, constituting 58.5% of complainants. 

"There has been a significant rise of complaints relating to technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) against women and marginalised groups in the year 2023," said DRF's Executive Director Nighat Dad. She added, "These instances of violence are also leading to a rise in potential offline violence for these groups."

Dad said that another alarming aspect DRF noted during the year, especially near the elections, was the use of content created by generative artificial intelligence models to exacerbate violence against women in the public sphere, particularly women journalists. 

"These growing numbers are alarming and grow to show how online spaces are perpetuating identity-based attacks on women and marginalised groups," she said, adding that There is a need for urgent redressal and protection for survivors facing TFGBV with holistic support from state institutions within the country.

The helpline's manager, Hyra Basit, stated, "This year, we have seen how the manifestation of TFGBV has evolved over the years, with rising complaints of incredible privacy violations of women via unregulated apps and the use of modern editing and generative AI to produce non-consensual intimate images (NCII)."

Distribution of complaints

Most of the calls the helpline received in 2023 were from Punjab, with 1,724, followed by Sindh with 261 and Islamabad with 118. 

As many as 58 cases from outside Pakistan were also received in 2023 and comprised Pakistani and non-Pakistani citizens.

The age distribution of our complainants indicates that young adults, particularly women between the ages of 18 and 30 (1371), are most prone to facing some type of online harassment. Interestingly, for the age group above 30, male complainants outnumbered women. This could indicate that younger women face greater instances of online harassment or, alternatively, that they are more comfortable reporting such instances.


Of the 2,473 complaints the helpline received in 2023, 2224 calls related to cyber harassment, with some 3,378 different types of complaints. 

The report said that the most common grievances reported by both men and women are blackmail, hacking, threats, and unsolicited contact. 

"However, the manifestation of these complaints can exhibit gendered patterns. For instance, women frequently encounter sexualised comments or threats aimed at tarnishing their reputation."

The most frequent complaint was financial fraud, with 742 complaints. However, most of these complaints were made by men, with 506 complaints, compared to 227 by women. Even though such complaints did not strictly fall within the purview of the helpline, it is pertinent to point out that a specific type of financial fraud was committed through a surge of loan apps available in Pakistan. These loan sharks resorted to violating the privacy of several users; several complainants reported that the apps would gain access to users' contact lists and photo galleries and would then use pictures to blackmail people, reach out to threaten and abuse their friends and family, or in certain cases, edit intimate pictures to blackmail people.

It was followed by blackmailing with 460 complaints. Women complained of this the most, with 397 complaints lodged compared to 57 by men.

The non-consensual use of information was the third most frequent complaint, with 334. Again, women filed the most complaints, with 279, while men filed 47.

The report said certain types of abuse were reported simultaneously, which exemplify how TFGBV manifests in Pakistan. These cases involve defamation and the non-consensual use of intimate images/information (NCII and NCUI), which often exploit patriarchal honour-based norms. 

Around 87% out of the 178 cases of non-consensual intimate images (NCII) were reported by women. Around 48% of all cases that involved the non-consensual use of images, intimate or otherwise, were reported by women and also included an element of blackmail. Similarly, 86% of the 460
blackmailing cases were reported by women. 

Consequently, women tended to lodge more complaints related to sexualised threats and comments, actions that undermine their reputation, especially in the eyes of their family and friends, or simply based on the fear of their family discovering their online presence.

Relation between harassers and victims

DRF said their analysis of the complaints showed that there was a pre-existing relationship between the survivor and their harasser; about 30% were currently or previously in a romantic relationship with the harasser at the time of contacting the helpline.

This category includes relationships that started online. Approximately 50% of the complainants reported being harassed by someone they knew in a personal capacity, including their friends, family, and (ex)partners.

Harassment of transgenders online 

Data from the helpline showed that, like the previous year, the transgender community was subjected to an orchestrated online hate campaign this year, and these complaints made up approximately 1.6% of all complaints received.

Transgenders filed the most complaints about facing hate speech, lodging 20 of the 27 complaints lodged, including 18 by transgender women and two by transgender men.

The second most frequent complaint from transgenders was of threats. 

Little response from platforms

Meta, which consists of three of the world's biggest platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, and messaging application WhatsApp, comprised a combined 55.6% share of complaints (up by 3% since last year). 

Despite this, the response, or lack thereof, by social media platforms where the campaign was orchestrated is another troubling aspect of this trend. Although social media platforms showed a willingness to listen, the actions taken to resolve the matter were unsatisfactory, resulting in harmful content remaining on the platforms, the report said.

Among major social media platforms, including YouTube, TikTok, and Twitter, Facebook and Instagram had the highest complaint rejection percentages, with 23% and 22%, respectively. Unresolved complaints were also elevated, at 30% and 24%, respectively. 

By comparison, TikTok had a resolution percentage of 78% and a ratio of unresolved complaints at 22%. Twitter (now referred to as 'X') had the highest ratio of unresolved cases at 50%.

Access to authorities

Most of the cases fielded by the helpline were eventually referred to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) — the designated agency under the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) to investigate and prosecute cybercrime cases. Out of the 2,224 cases of cyber harassment received by the helpline, 1,278 (57.5%) were eventually referred to the FIA because it was advised that taking legal action would be better for the long-term well-being of the survivors. 

While the FIA's website and official helpline provide options to register complaints, feedback received from 
complainants to DRF's helpline showed that these methods were nowhere near as efficient as visiting their physical offices in person. 

In 2018, the FIA expanded its offices to 15 cities to make the process of lodging complaints easier. Data showed 67.6% of the cases referred to the FIA originated from one of 15 cities where an FIA cybercrime wing was located, whereas 392 or 30% of cases originated from other locations, making it necessary for these complainants to travel across cities to file a report.

Complainants, especially women, have strongly objected to the scarcity of dedicated cybercrime units in their city. This logistical challenge is particularly acute for women and girls, who often prioritise maintaining privacy to avoid potential repercussions stemming from societal victim-blaming tendencies. Additionally, financial constraints serve as a significant deterrent, as individuals may find the prospect of travelling to lodge a complaint with the FIA financially burdensome.

According to the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, Pakistan scored 1.53 on a scale of zero to four on the access to justice scale, which measures the degree to which women can file lawsuits, demand fair trials, and seek legal recourse when their rights are infringed.

Marginalised sections vulnerable online

Apart from transgenders, activists and women journalists were the most vulnerable and confronted a heightened susceptibility to online harassment attributable to their gender, often enduring misogynistic and sexually explicit remarks. 

Moreover, they may encounter censorship and professional reprisals, which could have profound personal and career ramifications. Hence, the report said it is imperative to provide tailored support to individuals navigating such intricate and intersecting vulnerabilities.


The report recommended policymakers collaborate with gender-specific civil society organisations for conducting gender sensitisation workshops in schools and education institutions, integrating digital literacy and safety into school curriculums, addressing the digital gender divide by removing barriers to internet and device access for women, enacting human rights-compliant legislation on digital privacy and protection, and supporting civil society organisations working on digital rights and gender equality.

Recommendations for law enforcement include increasing resource allocation, establishing mechanisms for handling cases in foreign jurisdictions, enhancing the functionality of online complaint portals, developing protocols for coordination with police, collecting gender-disaggregated data on cyber harassment cases, establishing dedicated desks for cyber harassment within cybercrime wings, improving coordination between branches, providing psychological services for victims, implementing a case management and tracking system, enhancing technical expertise, and providing training for judges on cybercrime law, internet governance, and online harassment to improve their ability to adjudicate related cases effectively.