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How sharing harmful messages and pirated content could land South Africans in jail

Picture: Pixabay

Picture: Pixabay

Published Jun 12, 2021


Johannesburg - Cyber experts have urged all South Africans to familiarise themselves with the new Cybercrimes Bill to ensure they don’t mistakenly commit a crime by forwarding or sharing potentially harmful messages or pirated content.

Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa signed into law the Cybercrimes Bill, which seeks to bring South Africa’s cybersecurity laws in line with the rest of the world. This bill which is now an Act of Parliament, creates offences for and criminalises, among others things, the disclosure of data messages which are harmful,

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Sharing harmful messages on social media platforms, email and chat sites like WhatsApp, which incite violence or contain intimate images without the depicted person's consent, could now result in hefty jail time.

IT expert Anna Collard from KnowBe4 Africa, says it is important that all South Africans are aware of the offences.

“The Cybercrime Act criminalised among other things the sharing and distribution of harmful messages. This means that South Africans need to be aware of the offences outlined in the law to ensure they don’t mistakenly commit a crime by forwarding or sharing potentially harmful messages or pirated content,” said Collard.

“The bill does not distinguish between a creator and sharer and holds any person who makes available, broadcasts, or distributes malicious communications equally accountable in the eyes of the law.”

Examples of the harmful data messages that could get you criminally charged include those which incite violence or damage to property, those which threaten persons with violence or damage to property, and those which contain an intimate image sent without the subject’s consent.

Picture: Pixabay

“The act describes an intimate image as both real or simulated, which shows the person as nude, or displays his or her genital organs or anal region,” said Collard.

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“The message is an offence if the person is female, transgender, or intersex and it offends their sexual integrity or dignity. Even if you can’t see the person’s face in the image, this offence applies if the message identifies the person in the text or in other information contained in the message.”

Should you be found guilty of sharing intimate images without the depicted person's consent, it can result in fines and imprisonment up to 15 years.

“Revenge porn” is widely understood to mean sharing or distributing sexually explicit or nude photographs or videos of someone without their consent. The photo or video can be shared via email, pornographic websites, text message or any social media platform.”

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“It is extremely harmful with often devastating effects to the victims, as nowadays it’s almost impossible to permanently remove such content once it’s spread. In South Africa the signed amendments to the Films and Publications Bill clamped down on hate speech, the dissemination of child pornography and ’revenge porn’ with penalties for this offence including a fine up to R300 000 or imprisonment for up to four years, or both a fine and imprisonment.

“Some of the key clauses in the Cybercrimes Act also relate to the distribution of a data message of an intimate image (often referred to as the ’revenge-porn’ offence) and can result in fines and imprisonment up to 15 years.”

Collard says South Africans also need to be wary of the messages they share and forward on chat applications such as WhatsApp.

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“You could get criminally charged if you either create, share or forward harmful content or messages. The act does not distinguish between a creator and sharer and holds any person who makes available, broadcasts, or distributes malicious communications equally accountable in the eyes of the law.

“It is too easy nowadays to take a screenshot of your ’private’ WhatsApp message and then make this public. So best is to refrain from creating, sharing or forwarding anything that could be considered as degrading or harmful to others.”

Harmful messages that individuals need to avoid sending are any that are mentally, psychologically, physically or economically harmful.

“A data message will be harmful if it intimidates, encourages or harasses a person to harm him or herself, or any other person; this also includes cyberbullying without the threat of violence. For example, a person who is encouraged by others on social media to commit suicide.

The bill aims to keep South Africans safe from cybercriminals, say experts. File image.

“Messages that are inherently false in nature and are aimed at causing harm, for example sharing mis- or disinformation, such as fake news inciting violence. False communication intent on causing mental harm is also an offence.

“All of the above applies to both private and public conversations, for example WhatsApp groups and chainmail-type messages which are shared among contacts.”

Sharing pirated content could also land you in hot water. While piracy is not specifically highlighted as a cybercrime in the bill, it makes specific reference to the theft of “incorporeal property”, said Collard.

“Although it does not include a definition for incorporeal property, an ordinary understanding of ’incorporeal’ refers to intangible property such as films, music etc, which are typically the subject of piracy. Since the content that is usually pirated is incorporeal property, it is very likely that the act will consider piracy an offence under the law.”

Collard adds that the signing of the new bill has come at the perfect time, when the world has become more reliant on technology than ever due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has shown us how dependent we all are on technology, which has become a part of our daily lives, both at home and at work.

“Unfortunately, the increase in digitisation means an increase in risks and cyberthreats. South Africa has struggled to keep up with regulating cybercrimes and the fact that this bill has been signed is a positive development towards changing this.”

IT expert Stephen Osler, co-founder and business development director at Nclose, said it was hugely important that the Cybercrimes Bill had been signed into law.

“It’s a real acknowledgement that cybercrimes are a big problem and that the South African government recognises that its partly their responsibility to keep their citizens safe from all crimes, including those of a cyber nature,” said Osler.

The bill aims to keep South Africans safe from cybercriminals, said Osler. It also consolidates cybercrime law into one place.

“We have seen a drastic increase in the volume of cybercrime against individuals and companies in South Africa so this act will provide lawmakers the platform to hold these ’threat actors’ accountable in court for their actions.”

With the increase in reliance on technology due to the lockdown, the signing of the bill was of utmost importance, said Osler.

“Working from home and the speed of digital transformation over the last 18 months has opened up many avenues which allow cybercriminals to take advantage of their targets,” said Osler.

However, as with all new acts, there are some downsides to the new bill.

“With any new legislation we still need to understand the practical implications of the act. For the moment the act empowers SAPS to act on the legislation, however the technical ability to provide forensic evidence is either not available or technically possible, due to encryption of certain data streams.”

Doros Hadjizenonos, the regional sales director for Fortinet Southern Africa, believes the new Cybercrimes Bill is a move in the right direction.

“It impacts everyone who processes data or uses a computer. Technology is instrumental in modern life, and as we become more reliant on it we need to be cognisant on the role we play in ensuring secure and responsible use of technology,” said Hadjizenonos.

“Both individuals and organisations need to assess the impact of the bill on their day to day activities as some of these could now be unlawful. Hopefully, the new bill will sway some users away from cybercrime as it will now come with a risk of being fined or jailed.”

The Saturday Star

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