South Korea has a huge problem with digital sex crimes against women says Human Rights Watch

Big tech and local authorities are both far from helpful when victims try to delete unauthorised images or prosecute creeps


International non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report Wednesday describing digital sex crime in South Korea as rampant and pervasive, with the nation leading the world in use of spycams to capture women in vulnerable moments. The author calls on governments and companies to do more.

The 105-page report, [PDF] authored by Heather Barr, is based on interviews with 38 women and an online survey. It details gender-based violence conducted online in Korea, most of which target target women and girls using digital images, often captured and/or shared without consent.

“This report explores how technological innovation can facilitate gender-based violence in the absence of adequate rights-based protections by government and companies,” writes Barr.

South Korea boasts the world’s highest rate of adult smart phone ownership, world-class internet speeds, and internet access in 99.5 per cent of households. The problem, according to the report, is that the nation lags on development of gender equality, ranking 102nd out of 156 nations assessed in the 2021 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap rankings.

Between 2008 and 2017, illegal capturing of images rose from four to eleven per cent of sex crimes prosecuted in the country, with many more incidents unprosecuted and uncounted. Over 30,000 cases of filming with hidden cameras were reported between 2013 and 2018 — with cameras implanted in homes, public spaces, used in upskirt videos and more.

The illegal footage depicts women in sexual situations, everyday moments and vulnerable moments like urinating, showering or undressing. Extreme cases involve rape or virtual enslavement, where a person is blackmailed into sending increasingly graphic or degrading images of themselves.

The perpetrators use the images either for self-gratification or financial profit — selling the footage, using ads to monetise it, or both. One and a half hours of footage sells for around five million won (US$4,470).

Shameful, yet not reportable

The report claims that the problem is often dismissed by the police, prosecutors, judges and legislators because it takes place only digitally and not physically, and is therefore seen as not doing that much harm, but it is deeply shameful for some women in conservative Korea. The women mentioned in the report were often blamed for their dress, behaviour, presence, or engagement in sexual activity. Prosecutors dropped over 43 per cent of sexual digital crime cases in 2019, and 79 per cent of those convicted in 2020 received a suspended sentence, a fine, or a combination of the two.

Barr explained to The Register that online videos have the potential to follow these women for the rest of their lives — through their careers and relationships.

The broader impact, Barr told The Reg, is that some women and girls are often on edge, unsure of who and where they can trust. Women in the report found themselves avoiding public toilets, changing their wardrobe to wear only long dresses and non-revealing clothing, and even going so far as to leave the internet — to avoid being contactable or having their information online, and because they are afraid of what they might find of themselves on a web site if they search.

Many women have committed suicide or moved abroad. One woman was living in a tent inside her house to prevent exposures to camera planted without her knowledge. Other women reported giving up dating altogether. Another had plastic surgery.

Spycams everywhere

Popular spycams can be hidden in everyday objects like clocks or paintings. Barr described to The Register meeting a professional from a spy camera detection company whose job is to go into homes and look for the intrusive hardware. The man began pulling out objects: a Starbucks cup, a Coke can, a calculator, a shampoo bottle, a hook for a back door. Everything had a camera. The salesman told Barr the cameras stream audio and video in colour, even in a dark room, 24 hours a day.

Spycam detection is not the only industry to pop up around this problem. There are also companies that assist in removing online images. Having images removed involves spotting them, capturing them as evidence, and requesting deletion. One woman reported that while some platforms were easy to petition, Google was “especially slow, taking several days or up to a week to remove abusive images”. Even after images are removed, thumbnails on sites like Instagram or Twitter may remain.

A press release from South Korea's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announcing the establishment of a government survivor centre read:

Digital sex crime is characterized by the fact illegal photographs or videos can continue to be spread on the Internet once they are posted until deletion. Unlike other sexual assault, digital sexual crimes can persist and further expand.

The South Korean government passed legislation to expand the range of acts punishable as digital sex crimes and toughen penalties following six protests in 2018 that addressed the matter. In 2020 more revisions were made.

Articles 13 and 14 of the Sex Crimes Act make it illegal for a person to take photos of a person that may cause “sexual stimulus or humiliation without the victim’s consent,” but the HRW report argues that this determination is subjective, and leaves out those filmed doing mundane things in their home and other private spaces without consent. It also doesn’t address audio recordings. Furthermore, it doesn’t allow for nuance between those who share a video with friends and those who upload a video for profit.

The Register asked Barr how South Korea, and the world, can move forward. She said she would like to see tech companies focus on prevention, and not rely on government processes, adding:

We have to look for global solutions. In a borderless world, we can’t rely on government solutions to solve all the problems. ®

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