Yosra Al-Asri, a prominent digital rights activist in Yemen, found herself the target of cyberattacks after sharing vital digital security tips with her friends. The perpetrators behind these attacks remain unidentified, highlighting the challenges online freedom advocates face in the region.
During an interview with SMEX, Al-Asri described how an attacker gained access to her colleague’s phone, created group chats that included all her friends’ numbers, and extorted several of them over an extended period. Eventually, the attacker managed to evade both account suspension and legal prosecution.
Digital Illiteracy Outbreak
Yemeni women face various digital threats, including extortion, data theft, and online harassment, as highlighted by human rights activist Bushra Al-Saadi during her discussion with SMEX. These attacks, perpetrated by various entities, often involve threats to publish private photos or personal information to intimidate and deter women from their online activities.
Al-Asri states cyberattacks frequently target women who express their political opinions or speak about humanitarian issues. News site “mansaty 30” polled 1,717 Yemenis about digital security and found that 41% of the participants had never heard of the term. The survey revealed that male participants were “more ignorant than female participants about digital security.”
The primary factors contributing to digital illiteracy among women are the absence of traditional education, accounting for 55%, and societal restrictions, which constitute 54%.
According to the conclusions of the survey, digital illiteracy increases the chances of extortion among girls and women, especially given the pressure that males often exert on women in their families, pushing them to cover up what they are exposed to online.
Samar Halal, the Tech Unit Lead at SMEX, asserts that a few digital security steps could significantly protect women online. These precautions involve being careful when talking to new people online and not sharing personal information, financial details, or private content with strangers online.
In addition, Halal emphasized the importance of enabling two-factor authentication, avoiding any links from unknown entities, and reporting harassment and violent behavior to platforms.
The Digital Safety Helpdesk at SMEX, which is managed by Halal, provides immediate support to internet users, activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights organizations under a digital threat in Arabic-speaking countries. The Helpdesk team handles and tracks a wide range of cases including online censorship, online harassment, and sharing private information online.
For months, Salma (pseudonym), a resident of Marib Governorate in eastern Yemen, had been sending her personal photos to one of her close friends before the latter’s device was hacked.
The attackers deliberately withdrew the data and photos on the phone, and Salma was among the victims. She could not sue the extorter despite filing a complaint against him because he lives in an area that does not follow the rule of the Sana’a government.
“There are no laws in the Yemeni legislation that protect someone from electronic extortion,” lawyer Arwa Al Shameri, Legal Support Officer at the nonprofit Yemen Women Union, told SMEX. Al Shameri noted that the absence of a legal deterrent has led to a rise in cybercrime rates in the country.
The Republican Decree for Law No. 12 of 1994 on Crimes and Penalties, which is not applied at all in Yemen due to the control of tribal customs, punishes with imprisonment “for a period not exceeding five years or with a fine anyone who intentionally instills in the same person the fear of harming him or any other person interested in him and thereby maliciously induces him to hand over or hand over to any other person any money, legal deed or anything signed with a signature or seal that can be converted into a legal deed.”
According to Al Shameri, this article “loses its effectiveness when applied in the framework of cybercrimes” because using the word “maliciously” in the legislation allowed the extorters to prove their good intentions and deny their connection with any extortion.
The absence of official bodies and specialized laws forces citizens to launch individual and collective initiatives to counter this dangerous and spreading pattern in the country.
There are many examples of such initiatives, such as the organization that Al-Saadi worked with: the Cultural Media Center (CMC), a Yemeni non-profit organization based on the initiative of a number of youth working in the cultural and media fields. The CMC provides activists and journalists with digital, psychological, and physical safety and protection measures in Abyan Governorate.
Al-Saadi explains to SMEX that the organization aims to raise awareness of women working in government and private facilities and people with disabilities, pointing out that the number of beneficiaries of the training reaches 500. The goal of this work is to train a feminist group specialized in digital security and psychological and physical safety for women.
There are no clear statistics on the number of female internet users in Yemen, but it can be measured by relying on Facebook statistics indicating that 13% of account holders in Yemen identify themselves as female.
*If you’re under any digital attack, contact the Digital Safety Helpdesk at SMEX immediately via the following addresses and numbers: