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Combatting Electronic Blackmail: Lessons from a University Student’s Tragedy

The recent death of a student at Egypt’s Arish University highlights the urgent need for Arab universities to adopt strategies for combatting electronic blackmail within their communities, scholars and digital media experts say.

Al-Fanar Media has been following the case and exploring experts’ insights about electronic crimes in the university environment and their advice on how to address the issue.

Authorities are still investigating exactly what led to the death of Naira El-Zoghbi, a student at Arish University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, who may have taken her own life by ingesting pesticide tablets.

On March 3, the Egyptian Public Prosecution issued a statement regarding the progress of the investigations. It indicated that El-Zoghbi’s death occurred after she was subjected to “psychological pressure resulting from one of her colleagues (the first accused) threatening her to publish correspondence she surreptitiously transferred from the deceased’s phone to her phone, and sent it to another male colleague (the second accused). The latter in turn blogged on their batch’s WhatsApp group that one of the students (without mentioning her specifically) had correspondence and pictures of her own, threatening to publish them at the time the students chose. He also requested that she apologise for the insult she had done to the first accused.”

The defendants are charged with “threatening in writing to disclose private matters, accompanied by a request, and violating the sanctity of the victim’s private life.”

Observers now await the conclusive forensic report following an autopsy to determine the cause of El-Zoghbi’s death. The Public Prosecution decided to conduct the autopsy after the victim’s parents expressed concerns “regarding the presence of criminal suspicion in the incident.”

The statement from the Public Prosecution revealed that El-Zoghbi had bought three aluminium phosphide tablets, locally known as “cereal tablets”, from a shop specialising in agricultural pesticides.

The tablets are commonly used in rural Egypt to protect cereal grains and crops from decay and pests. Mahmoud Mohamed Amr, the founder of the National Center for Toxicology at Kasr Al-Ainy Faculty of Medicine at Cairo University, has noted that in cases of ingesting a cereal tablet, ambulance response time is critical, measured in minutes. Swallowing a cereal tablet would cause a reaction akin to a chemical explosion when the chemicals in the tablet interacted with stomach acid or water.

What is Electronic Blackmail? 

El-Zoghbi’s death came barely three months after the release of a pertinent scientific study. The study, titled “Exposure of University Youth to Cybercrime through Social Media Websites and the Level of Awareness of Its Danger”, was published in December 2023 in the scientific journal of the Faculty of Specific Education at Damietta University, in Egypt. The study examined various facets of the phenomenon and underscored the grave consequences it could entail.

The study was prepared by Sherif Darwish Al-Labban, a professor of journalism at Cairo University’s Faculty of Mass Communication; Ghada Mousa Sakr, an assistant professor of educational media at Damietta University’s Faculty of Specific Education; Marwa Mohamed Ouf, a teacher in the Department of Educational Media at Damietta University’s Faculty of Specific Education; and Yasmine Mohamed Kamal El-Hadary, a teaching assistant in the same department.

The study notes that electronic blackmail can take various forms. One definition states that it encompasses “every threat made by the perpetrator, or an intermediary acting on their behalf, through electronic channels, that impacts the victim’s psyche or that of someone close to them, compelling them to comply with the perpetrator’s demands or instructions, regardless of their legality.”

Electronic blackmail is also described as “the act of threatening and intimidating the victim by disseminating photographs or video footage, or disclosing confidential information pertaining to the victim, with the aim of extorting money or coercing the victim into engaging in illicit activities for the benefit of the blackmailers. These activities may include divulging confidential information about an employer or other unlawful actions.”

Who Is Vulnerable to Electronic Blackmail?

According to the study, a number of factors contribute to internet users’ vulnerability to electronic blackmail. These include trusting strangers or unreliable acquaintances, reluctance to report incidents due to fear of tarnishing one’s reputation and impacting their family, and lack of vigilance in detecting such crimes. Additionally, many internet users neglect to employ security measures and programs to safeguard against hacking and surveillance, thereby delaying the discovery of the crime and impeding effective intervention.

How Pervasive Is the Problem?

The study surveyed a random sample of 400 students at various Egyptian public universities, including Damietta University, Cairo University, Minya University, and Assiut University. Nearly half (49.25 percent) of the respondents said they regularly engaged with social media platforms, and more than a quarter (26.75 percent) reported incidents of electronic blackmail via these websites.

The study asserts that electronic blackmail stands as one of the most pervasive crimes, evolving into a societal menace largely due to social media users’ obliviousness about the vulnerability of their information to hacking. Electronic blackmail permeates society, resulting in emotional turmoil and crises for victims, instilling fear and disrupting once stable lives, and ultimately manifesting as a profoundly unethical offense.

Illustrating the dire consequences, the study cited the tragic case of Basant Khaled, a high school student who took her own life in 2022 after falling victim to electronic blackmail and facing threats of photo publication from two individuals.

What Can Victims Do to Protect Themselves?

The study suggests several strategies for victims of electronic blackmail. It advises against engaging with perpetrators and refraining from complying with their demands, while attempting to gather information about the perpetrator without direct interaction. It emphasises the importance of contacting authorities and raising awareness about the judicial system’s capability to deter such crimes.

The study also recommends promoting behavioural changes among young people regarding their use of social media platforms, advocating for dedicated legislation to combat electronic blackmail, enhancing laws to oversee social media content for the protection of youth and society, and providing training for security agencies on effectively addressing instances of electronic blackmail.

Khaled El-Baramawy, an Egyptian journalist and digital media expert, advocates for cultivating awareness about this phenomenon and systematically addressing it across all institutions. “This is a prevalent issue, evident from the reports and grievances lodged with university authorities,” he told Al-Fanar Media. “A cursory search using relevant keywords reveals the considerable magnitude of these occurrences.”

El-Baramawy contends that addressing this issue entails bolstering the awareness framework surrounding the penalties associated with these crimes, prosecuting perpetrators, and empowering victims to navigate the psychological and legal challenges stemming from electronic blackmail.

He urges higher education leaders to adopt a holistic approach, integrating discussions on this phenomenon into seminars, activities, and events. He also calls for collaborating with other interested groups and supporting scientific research to elucidate the scope of this issue and its potential links to cases of suicide among university students.

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