By Dr.Debarati Halder
Couple of days ago my friend shared an alarming news with me on Facebook about WhatsApp. It says that several cyber security think tanks including Cyber Peace Foundation are now finding out how WhatsApp groups are circulating child sexual abuse videos and how these contents are growing viral. This is not an uncommon incident now. In 2015 from Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling, we had done an empirical research titled “Harassment via WhatsApp in Urban and Rural India: A Baseline Survey Report (2015). This research was conducted in three cities namely Tirunelveli, Kolkata and Delhi with responders from the age group of 19-40. Even though this research did not include survey on WhatsApp groups , but it did emphasize on personal harassment or receiving of the sexually explicit images, harassing videos of others etc. Some of the findings of this report are as follows:
- 32.8% stated that they are aware of the safety tools in WhatsApp and 42.7% said they feel it is safer than other internet communication services. 41.2% stated that they were not aware of the safety tools and 13.7% stated that they don’t feel that WhatsApp is safer than other internet communication services. 1.5% did not want to tell about their knowledge of awareness regarding safety tools in WhatsApp and 11.5% did not want to tell about their feelings whether WhatsApp is safer than other internet communication services. 24.4% stated that they have heard about the safety tools in WhatsApp but have no direct knowledge about it. 32.1% stated that they have heard about other internet communication services, but they do not have direct knowledge, whether WhatsApp is safer because they do not use other services.
- In answer to the question whether they had received any sexually explicit or obscene images including videos/images of rape, sexual abuse of women or children or men or LGBT people etc, among the 131 respondents, 11.5% stated that they had received sexually explicit or obscene images, 51.9% stated they did not receive such images and 2.3% did not want to answer. 34.4% stated that they are not aware of being targeted with such images because they do not use WhatsApp or have stopped using the services.
This suggests that WhatsApp had been a “chosen platform” by predators since long.
But why WhatsApp has become more dearer to predators than other social media websites like Facebook or Instagram especially for those including pedophiliacs or persons who create and circulate abusive videos including sexual abuse videos of women ? Let’s have a reality check about WhatsApp here:
- What is WhatsApp and how it works: As we had mentioned in the research report, WhatsApp messenger was started approximately in 2009 in the US by Jan Koumand Brian Action as a “better SMS alternative” (WhatsApp, 2014) and it is available for iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Windows phone, Nokia etc. This app uses the user’s phone number as the basic verification mode and it does not support calls via VoIP (Schrittwieser,Fr¨uhwirt, Kieseberg, Leithner, Mulazzani, Huber, & Weippl, 2014). Some of the basic features of WhatsApp include status update, profile picture update, uploading of address book (Schrittwieser, et. al., 2014), options to create/join groups (Terpstra, 2013), updates about location, uploading and circulating photos and videos and voice recordings. Typically WhatsApp verification may include a three stage procedure which involves (i) logging on to the download page of WhatsApp @ https://www.whatsapp.com/download/ and clicking on the chosen device icon and start downloading; (ii) the server then sends a 4-digit PIN number by SMS to the prospective user’s phone by SMS for verification and authentication (Schrittwieser, et. al., 2014), (iii) the user copies the code to the WhatsApp’s application graphical user interface (GUI) and after cross checking by the WhatsApp server the app gets activated on the phone of the user (Schrittwieser, et. al., 2014). Once connected with WhatsApp, the user can get the information about other WhatsApp users by simply checking his/her phone address book or call log history or Gmail address book. This is because WhatsApp may access the user’s contact list or address book to keep track of other mobile phone numbers who use the WhatsApp services and may store this information on the server (WhatsApp, 2014, see sub- para B in Para 3) to get people connected instantly, profile pictures of other users and one WhatsApp user may get instantly connected to others through the server.
- How do users create network on WhatsApp and how the groups may be busted?
After downloading the app and activating the same, the user may get connected to his friends or likeminded people by doing a simple search in his phone address book. Other numbers with WhatsApp applications may show up. Users may choose to circulate their messages in several ways through WhatsApp :
- By using broadcasting feature whereby a single text/audio visual message may be conveyed to a batch of people : The Boradcasting list may be created as below:
- By forwarding the message to maximum five recipients at one time. Now, this “forwarding” may reach a wider recipient list if it is done in a group. WhatsApp group can be created by any individual by going to the chat tab and creating a new group. The image below may explain how groups can be created on WhatsApp:
Interestingly, WhatsApp groups can be private or be public as well. Most of the groups who circulate images /contents of sexual abuse including for self-gratification or group gratification, may keep their group private so that the group may not be disturbed by any 3rd party monitoring authority including the police. These group members generally may have a mutual understanding and trust whereby the contents shared by them would not be reported outside. The members may necessarily download /save the sexual abuse/harassment videos/contents in their own devices for individual gratification or for unethical gaining by further circulation as well. The end to end encryption by WhatsApp may make it more favorable for such group members to widely discuss and circulate such contents.
Public groups on the other hand are more open groups where people may join for discussions and it may not necessarily private for those whom the admin/s have invited or made them join. Unlike the private groups, public groups may be monitored if any third party monitoring authority joins the discussion in disguise or any other group member decides to bring in the police or other monitoring stakeholders. In both these cases, admin’s responsibilities have been scrutinized by courts in India. The recent report suggests that the courts have held responsible for allowing to spread seditious, inciting messages. WhatsApp group members and admins have also been booked for creating /circulating child sexual abuse materials for sexual gratification.
- What if the group admin is an underage user?
It is important to know the age barrier about WhatsApp users. There are infact not two, but three options given by WhatsApp. Lets check it:
- The minimum age criterion for European region including European Union countries is 16.
- For other countries the, the minimum age criteria is 13 unless the domestic laws of the said countries have fixed a higher age for using of WhatsApp.
- Overlooking both, a child can use the WhatsApp services of the parents if the parent allows the child to use the services under his/her monitoring.
This in fact shows that a child may use WhatsApp, may create his/her own profile and may create contents him/herself for private or public sharing on WhatsApp with whoever he/she wants.
- What happens to the producer/distributor of the offensive contents?
In broader understanding, the child is legally permitted to create content which he/she thinks can be circulated. Now, this has been a question for several courts : when a child is creating a sexting content and circulating the same with fellow children (including his/her boy/girl friend ), how the courts (and the laws )would treat him/her ? Is he the perpetrator? Is he the victim? Or is he a ‘child’ with no liabilities? S.67B of the Information technology Act, 2000(amended in 2008), Ss. 13 and 14 of the Protection of children from sexual offences Act, 2012 clearly mention that “whoever’ creates, circulates, produces etc contents depicting children in sexually contents may be penalized. These cane be considered non-baliable, which would suggest that the punishment can be heavier. Similarly, Ss. 67 and 67A of the Information Technology Act, 2000(amended in 2008) also penalizes ‘anyone’ who creates, distributes etc sexually explicit and obscene materials. S. 354C of the Indian Penal Code also touches upon penalizing men who private images of woman who would not consent for sharing such contents with third parties . S.375 and 376 of the Indian penal Code also touches upon capturing rape videos and storing or circulating the same. These offences can also be non-bailable and can have heavier punishments.
The contents that the children would have created also carries significance: if a child creates a sexting video or sexual abuse video or a non consensual porn image/content or even a revenge porn content and sends it to his friend/s, the recipient may decide not to receive the content if from the look at the content or the text attached with it, the recipient feels that it should not be opened or should not be further circulated because it contains ‘bad stuff’. WhatsApp is smart enough to have created limited policy guideline and security feature whereby one can report his/her child who may be using WhatsApp without parental guidance and the parents feel that the child may be doing /victimized due to illegal /risky contents and connections. It says
“If your underage child created a WhatsApp account, you can show them how to delete their account. You can learn how to delete an account in our Help Center.If you’d like to report an account belonging to someone underage, please send us an email. In your email, please provide the following documentation and redact or hide any unrelated personal information:
Proof of ownership of the WhatsApp number (e.g., copy of government-issued identification card and phone bill with the same name)
Proof of parental authority (e.g., copy of birth or adoption certificate for the underage child)
Proof of child’s date of birth (e.g., copy of birth or adoption certificate for the underage child)
We’ll promptly disable the WhatsApp account if it’s reasonably verifiable that the account belongs to your underage child. You won’t receive confirmation of this action. Our ability to review and take appropriate action on a report significantly improves with the completeness of the information requested above. “
Removal /deactivating of the said account is however at the discretion of WhatsApp especially when they would not be reasonably convinced .
But in case the reporting individual is not the parent of the child who may be doing illegal stuff or who may be a potential victim, WhatsApp suggests to contact the parents of the child.
For adult wrong doers,
WhatsApp has a typical formula which is followed by almost all social media
companies : they would suggest to block the number so that the user of that
particular number would not be able to contact the blocker unless the earlier is being unblocked . Here
is what WhatsApp suggests regarding how to block a number:
- The producer/distributor of the offensive content has been arrested. What about the offensive image?
The above information would not serve much purpose for blocking /reporting of the content unless the same is considered as an offending subject through a police report. In such case, the said content may be made disabled from their own server, but they would rather work like email or SMS and would not access individual devices to dig out the offensive content to block and disable it. In such case, even if the persons (owning the WhatsApp numbers and profiles) may be blocked, the contents may keep on circulating unless these have been ‘ordered ‘ to be disabled from the server. This is how the objectionable contents float from one device to another and reach out to millions after the original sender may have deleted from his device to save himself or he may have been arrested by the police.
Nothing but a police report about the said content therefore could be the best answer for blocking the content from being further circulated. But a few things can not be ignored when this is suggested: the police must act accordingly to make WhatsApp delete the content from its server and block the circulation whenever it appears on WhatsApp from which ever device. But this may become a herculean task especially when the police and the courts may feel challenged due to lack of infrastructure and proper laws. As long as this does not take place, WhatsApp users have to be responsible enough to not to circulate such contents even if they receive it from known or unknown numbers. Not to be forgotten, the police may arrest individuals who may store child sexual harassment videos /images unknowingly as well. But the unfortunate fact is this may not be the same for adult sexual abuse cases. But if the users use WhatsApp responsibly, the problem may definitely be address.
Please note : Do not violate copyright of this blog. If you would like to use information provided in this blog for your own assignment/writeup/project/blog/article, please cite it as “Halder D. (2019), ” WhatsApp reporting of women and child abuse videos: The common understanding vs the reality” 29th April, 2019 , published in http://debaraticyberspace.blogspot.com
 See Sandhya Nair (2018) WhatsApp group sharing child porn busted, 5 held
Published in http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/65263327.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst Accessed on 22.04.2019
 For more information see https://faq.whatsapp.com/en/general/26000151/?category=5245250
 Halder, D., & Jaishankar. (2013). Revenge Porn by Teens in the United
States and India: A Socio-legal Analysis. International Annals of
Criminology, 51(1-2), 85-111. ISSN: 00034452 (UGC Listed Journal)
 Cuthbertson Anthony (2019). WHATSAPP IS HOTBED FOR CHILD SEX ABUSE VIDEOS IN INDIA, STUDY FINDS. Published in https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/whatsapp-child-sex-abuse-videos-groups-india-a8885811.html?fbclid=IwAR251ajPe20Y7zcXtD2o1s0w–86-Pr5UrKHVgv7IF_7swAH_dvEGQTzcZQ on 26th April, 2019. Retrieved on 26th April, 2019
 Halder, D., & Jaishankar, K. (2015). Harassment via WhatsApp in Urban
and Rural India: A Baseline Survey Report (2015). Tirunelveli, India:
Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling. Available @ https://www.cybervictims.org/CCVCresearchreport2015.pdf Retrieved on 27.04.2019
 See pp 2 in ibid