Digital Threats to the LGBTI community


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This section includes an overview of the situation of some of the digital threats and vulnerabilities faced by LGBTI human rights defenders and persons in the forty-seven sub Saharan African countries. These threats arise from our use of computers, the Internet and mobile phones in order to carry out our work, establish networks and communities, and express our identities.

Marginalisation and attacks against the LGBTI community in the region come in various forms and arise from, unfortunately, a widespread attitude of social and political hostility towards the community. In Africa, members of the LGBTI community face insults, threats and exclusion from family members on the discovery of their sexual orientation or gender identity status. LGBTI persons across the region often find themselves victims of a witch-hunt mentality, led by family, community or State, and are desperate to conceal their identities or orientations lest they be targeted.

Although there are exceptions, religious institutions, both Muslim and Christian, tend to also foster hostility towards the LGBTI community. Many religious leaders even preach against homosexuality and advise their followers not to accept the practice.

Because homosexuality is still viewed as "un-African" in a large part of the region, politicians and religious leaders speak loudly against LGBTI groups to gain traction. Some religious leaders view homosexuality as a threat to traditional, socio-cultural and moral beliefs and values and perceive it as a negative western culture that should not be accepted. Other political campaigns translate into hateful demagoguery which is then used to get votes, and to distract people from political, social, and economic failings. Such campaigns translate into violence, ostracism, and oppression that LGBTI people have to face on a daily basis. In 2014, laws were passed in Nigeria and Uganda imposing harsher criminalisation of homosexuality, and were followed by campaigns of persecution by homophobic elements of society.

These are not the only threats faced by LGBTI persons in the region. With the proliferation of mobile phones and smartphones, computers and Internet access in the region, LGBTI people have taken to these new means of communication in order to express their identities and build networks of contacts and communities. However, homophobic elements of State and society are equally present on this new media and are discovering new, technological means of attacking the community. The use of mobiles, social media platforms, email and dating sites in harassment, bullying, sexual violence, and even as a means of gathering evidence for prosecution is increasingly common. This section will outline the major risks from a digital security perspective faced by LGBTI persons in the region and link into sections of the toolkit which can help us to avoid these kinds of attacks.

Among the most common digital threats faced by the community are:

Access to Accounts and Devices

The problem:

Breach of privacy leading to ‘outing’ is one of the biggest fears some LGBTI persons face within the region. A common way for this to happen is by having one's computer or devices accessed by someone else who can then see the sensitive information stored on them. This information include your:

  • work documents;
  • pictures or videos;
  • previous browsing history;
  • dating apps;
  • private email conversations;
  • SMS or various chatting apps

This kind of breach of privacy can happen through simple acts such as lending your device to a friend, or having it stolen. However, we also need to consider the risk of computers being searched or confiscated for political reasons or for purposes of extortion. There are many examples of LGBTI human rights defenders or organisations having their homes or offices raided, by law enforcement or private individuals. Computers and other devices are very often stolen or confiscated in these attacks. Sometimes, a raid can take place under the pretext of searching for "ponography" or "indecent material", which can be intepreted quite openly, and used to further stigmatise the LGBTI community. In this case, the material on the computers and their browsing history will usually be searched for examples.

Example incidents

In August 2012, the offices of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) were raided by police and computers and other material was seized on suspicion of containing pornography or material insulting of the President. The materials were held for two years until GALZ won a court case ordering their return in January 2014.

In Uganda in 2013, a 65-year-old businessman was arrested and charged with “trafficking obscene publications” after his computer was stolen and gay pornography stored on it was discovered. The thieves passed the material to Uganda’s Red Pepper newspaper which splashed details of the video on its front page under the headline: “Exposed – Top City Tycoons Sodomy Sex Video Leaks”, and the material was subsequently passed to the police and used as a basis for his prosecution.

In January 2014, the offices of the LGBTI rights organisation "Alternative" in Côte d'Ivoire were attacked by an angry mob of local residents, and all their computers were stolen.

Human Rights Defender Testimonies:

"We go to meetings where our houses can be raided, information found and used against us as activists to indicate we are promoting LGBTI propaganda. We travel with our laptops to meetings, workshops and seminars, and airports especially can be a risky place if you are detained or even loose your luggage!"– Anonymous Human Rights Defender

Staying safe: With increasing social and legal persecution of LGBTI people, we need to take action to protect our devices and accounts from unwanted access. Luckily, we can be much more secure by taking just a few simple steps:

  • First, we should protect our devices and accounts with strong passwords with the help of programs like KeePassX.
  • We should use a trustable browser like Mozilla Firefox with Add-Ons and get to know its privacy settings. Or, we can use the Tor Browser which facilitates anonymous browsing online and which won't remember your browsing history.
  • For even stronger security, we can encrypt our sensitive material, or our entire hard drives with programs like VeraCrypt. Full disk encryption is even built into many operating systems, such as Windows Professional, Mac OS X, many Linux systems, as well smartphone systems such as Android 4.0 or later, and iOS, although it often has to be activated manually.
  • If you use internet on a shared computer or an Internet Café, ensure that when logging into your account you never activate the option for Remain logged in, Remember me or Save my password. Also, be sure to clear your browsing history, search history and browser cache if you were visiting any LGBTI-related pages.

Human Rights Defender Testimonies

"Cellphones are used a lot, especially text messages, and they've been used for cases against people who get arrested. If you are an activist, and you get arrested and your phone is taken away, they use your messages to build a case against you. Also civilians: sometimes if a relationship breaks up and one person does not want to let go, for example in a place like Cameroon... even if I'm a lesbian, and I go to the police and say “look at this person, she's a lesbian, she's been bothering me, look at these messages she's been sending me...”. They're gonna arrest the person, and they don't care about me. If you have money to pay them, especially. They won't look at what I sent to the person, but what the person sent me, and build a case." -- Anonymous Human Rights Defender

For more, see:

Evidence for prosecution

The problem:

Although arrest and detention without trial are common for LGBTI people in the region, until recently, arrests that lead to prosecution were rare; only a handful of cases have been recorded in the past decade within the region. As mentioned above, however, law enforcement in a number of countries are beginning to rely on accessing individuals' emails, text messages, and documents contained in devices to gather proof for prosecution on the basis of sexuality. In many cases, police simply use this evidence to extort money from individuals eager to avoid formal charges.

Staying safe:

Protecting ourselves is not just about protecting our own data, but that of our communities too. Knowing how to communicate securely is more important than ever, as many popular platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and others are not designed with user privacy in mind. However, there are alternatives:

  • We can chat securely over our mobile devices using apps like TextSecure and ChatSecure.
  • We can chat and make voice and video calls online securely with our contacts using programs like Jitsi.
  • We can encrypt our emails and make them inaccessible to unwanted eyes by using Gpg4usb or Thunderbird with Enigmail.
  • We can even get off insecure platforms like Facebook and explore alternatives such as Crabgrass.

This way, you can reduce the risks of having emails intercepted or accessed, and establish secure communications with people in your network. It's important to note however that these tools will not protect against the person with whom you communicate sharing or publicising your private messages.

Human Rights Defender Testimonies

"I love that encryption! I love it! The idea that you can relate with someone without a third party knowing what is happening, you can code your languages, your communication, wow! [...] I came to find that when we communicate with each other there is a 'Big Brother' somewhere who somehow [can get] this information. Jitsi enables the coding of this information so even that 'Big Brother' cannot decode it. It's useful because it makes your communication private, so it's just between you and the person you're addressing." — Anonymous Human Rights Defender

"Last month, an ex of mine outed me to my family. My mother was very curious but she had no proof. Because my phone and computer had a password, she could not check anything without me being there. When I noticed she liked to look over my shoulder, I cleaned all my browsing history and put all my pictures and videos inside a [VeraCrypt] file. [...] Also, because my ex had shared her password with me, it was easy to delete everything on her phone when we broke up: pictures, texts, emails. I am now very happy that I learned not to share my password!" — Anonymous Human Rights Defender

For more, see:

Entrapment and Extortion

The problem:

Dating sites and social networks have provided members of the LGBTI community with new potential for communicating and establishing partnerships, networks and communities. However, these tools are also being used by homophobic elements of the State and society to entrap LGBTI people and subject them to humiliation, extortion, or even violence. Attacks are increasingly common whereby individuals or groups — be they civilian or police — set up fake profiles on gay dating sites or social networks and use them to lure people into meetings. Users of the site may unwittingly believe they are arranging to meet someone like them, but upon meeting they are attacked.

Example incidents

In Nigeria, police and ordinary citizens set up profiles on dating sites to attract gay men. In 2012, a newspaper article appeared to glorify one of such groups that had set up a punishment group that trapped and specialized in extorting gay men. "We call them up, set a meeting in a hotel room then snap pictures in compromising positions. We then use this to collect money from them" said one of the young men.

The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya say incidents of blackmail and extortion are high and constantly growing within the country and accounts for one of the highest crimes committed against LGBTI persons.

Human Rights Defender Testimonies

"If you go on some social network and you let people know you're a lesbian, or even if you don't and some guy would just pretend that he's a girl and you think you're talking to a girl, you start exchanging pictures and he keeps all the pictures. He would even send a nude picture of a girl! I met someone on Badoo once, we were talking, so I said 'give me your number', but I couldn't call immediately. So later I called and it was a guy's voice!" -- Anonymous Human Rights Defender

"We had an intern recently who met somebody on Facebook, and they invited him and the person pretended that he was a partner. He went for an appointment and met five other people in an isolated part of town! He got beaten silly, he got stripped naked and photographed naked, they threatened that they would put that on Facebook, and they took all the money he had on him and his phones as well. And it wasn't possible to report to the police because then the story would all come out and they would be worse off for it." -- Anonymous Human Rights Defender

Staying safe:

Avoiding snooping and entrapment on dating sites and social networks is partly technical, but is mostly to do with our behaviour:

  • For a start, it's a good idea to only connect to dating sites securely and anonymously such as through using the Tor Browser
  • Or as a minimum, by enabling the HTTPS Everywhere add-on to the Firefox browser.
  • It's important to delete our browsing history and cookies after each session, or have them disabled to begin with.

However, most of the solutions are behavioural, not technical. We should never associate any identifiable information on a dating site. We must also be very careful when exchanging pictures and only do so once significant trust has been established. First meetings with new people should only be in a safe, public place.

For more, see:

Harassment, physical and sexual attacks

The problem:

Within the sub-Saharan African region, members of the LGBTI community face insults, threats and exclusion from family members on the discovery of their sexual orientation and gender identity status. Moreover, our identities and work often fly in the face of heteronormative social structures and misogyny. As a result, the violence faced by LGBTI people is structural, physical, and often sexualised. Harassment, violence, rape, and in some cases murder have been recorded against members of the community.

Now, many of these threats have expanded into the online space. Online bullying is a form of harrasment which may include repeatedly taunting, ganging up, threatening, or name calling individuls to cause harm or discomfort. Because of the proliferation of social networking and communication platforms, and the fact that people often feel anonymous when using them, online and social media bullying are very prevalent and LGBTI persons and groups are not exempt from it. On the contrary, a lot of people have been 'outed' to their family because of their posts and behaviour online while others have been harrassed for being LGBTI, posting LGBTI-related content or showing support for the community. Seemingly random conversations have been known to turn into homophobic threads and in a some situations, what begins as online harassment turns into real-life violence.

Human Rights Defender Testimonies:

"Digital Security is extremely important for human rights lawyers and LGBTI activists in this part of the world. In Nigeria for example, the government has employed the services of cyber security gurus from Israel and other developed countries to hack into and gather intelligence from hapless and ignorant citizens, especially human rights activists, to be able to gain knowledge of their work, their communication and track down their activities." -- Anonymous Human Rights Defender

"The state has interest in accessing information relating to our work, and mainly our databases. This includes through confiscation of computers, but also phone tapping, surveillance, and interfering with our Internet Service Provider" — Anonymous Human Rights Defender

Smartphone chat apps like WhatsApp, Viber, or 2go can access our phone numbers and provide them to the whole world without our permission and give potential harrassers direct access to us. Some apps also encourage us to share our location information and who we are with; this information could also be used to facilitate an attack.

Staying safe:

For more on how to keep your phones safe, keep your browsing history to yourself and avoid sharing your location information that may lead to attacks, see:

Regarding harassment, as a general rule, it is advisable not to engage in arguments with people online who only want to spread hate: your discomfort only encourages them to continue. It is also unwise to share or confirm intimate details about yourself with unknown persons as they can use that to target you. For more, see:

Malware infection

The problem:

Access to technology and education on how computers work and how to use them in the most hygienic way is quite limited in the region. Most people learn to use computers "by doing" and don't get much theoretical background on how computers work, and basic measures to keep a computer healthy - that is to say, free of malicious software. This is exacerbated by a number of factors. In particular, due to limited resources, many people do not obtain registered copies of proprietary software such as Microsoft Windows or Microsoft Office, and instead rely on "cracked" or unlicensed versions. Many of these "cracked" softwares are themselves malicious, or at best, they leave us vulnerable to malware infections. Furthermore, many of us rely on using internet cafés for access to the internet, and are unaware of whether or not the computers are infected. This can have a very damaging effect, as infection of our computer or USB memory devices can lead to data loss, or facilitate spying on our activities.

"Phishing" is also often used as a technique to trick unsuspecting users into handing over their passwords for e-mail or other personal accounts. This often takes the form of an e-mail, which looks as though it was sent by a person or company known to you, which usually invites you to download an attachment (often a virus) or click on a link where you are prompted to sign in to your e-mail or other account, and enter your password. If this information falls into the wrong hands, it could lead to our sensitive and personal information falling into the public domain, or worse.

Staying safe:

To be more effective advocates, we must protect our information from malware and hackers. It's important for us to make use of Free and Open Source (FOSS) operating systems (like Linux) and programs (like Mozilla Firefox): these programs are free and regularly updated, and so offer increased security to users regardless of their resources. It's also fundamental to have updated Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware programs like Avast! or Spybot.

Human Rights Defender Testimonies

"We have been worried about viruses. We got the free anti-virus and anti-spyware, and this has helped secure us. I think this is the longest period we have not had to bring any computer engineer into our office to check our computers, just blowing air into it, and installing all sorts of software to clean, reformat and all that. We used to lose so much through those reformatting processes because when we don’t have access, we go to internet cafés and we pick viruses from there and they end up in our system: then all kinds of trouble will start. But since we were trained and the access we got to free anti virus, anti spyware, and our general change of attitude in the office, we have not invited anybody: not once to come into our offices and check the stomach of our computers." — Anonymous Human Rights Defender

However, it's not just about software. We also have to be on the lookout for suspicious mails and keep the following points in mind:

  • If you receive an unexpected or suspicious mail, always verify with your contact whether they actually sent the mail.
  • Never open or download a suspicious attachment unless you have verified that it is legitimate.
  • Check the actual destination of links by hovering over them with your cursor.
  • NEVER send your e-mail or other account password to anyone.
  • NEVER enter your e-mail or other account password on any login page which appears after following a link in an email.
  • ALWAYS ensure that you are on the legitimate login page of your email or other account by checking the URL carefully at the top of the screen.

For more, see:

Monitoring and Tracking

The problem:

A large number of activities we used to conduct offline have now been moved online. Such examples include banking, shoping, surveys and tests, socialising and sharing ideas. Both personal and seemingly random data that are continuously required by governments (biometric registration), mobile phone companies, company databases, 'random surveys', gaming comapnies and mobile apps have been confirmed by the Snowden leaks in 2013 to be tools used by companies and governments to gather data en masse about us, which can lead to targeted surveillance and attacks.

The aggregation and analysis of data related to our use of services have made it possible to predict our traits and attributes. In 2013, Michal Kosinski developed a mathematical tool that can predict an individual's traits like age, sex, sexual orientation, religion and political leanings using their Facebook 'likes' alone. With such tools being available to businesses and governments alike, it is easy to see the possibility of abuse and targeting of LGBTI groups and persons especially in countries where such activities are criminalised. The various services that can be used to build a profile of our interests, habits and characteristics, include our social network accounts, online banking, online commerce, and smartphone apps.

Furthermore, the rapidly-growing surveillance industry is continuously making remote intrusion and surveillance products available to States. Nigeria and Ethiopia are among the first in Africa that have been exposed for purchasing and using these tools.

Human Rights Defender Testimonies:

"We use Tor Browser a lot to remain anonymous when we are getting in touch with other MSM men. That is because you never know who is watching what sites you are going to. All my searches on google used to show on my history but with Tor, that is not the case." — Anonymous Human Rights Defender

"I use Tor every day. I also use Orbot on my phone so I always enjoying being anonymous when using the phone or computer." — Anonymous Human Rights Defender

Staying safe:

A helpful rule of thumb is to share identifying data on social platforms only on a need-to-know basis. However, some information is created and communicated by our very use of the Internet, which can include our browsing history or even our location information. To avoid this, we must consider using software which helps to anonymise our online activities, such as the Tor Browser, or even Tails which is an easy-to-use bootable operating system which you can run from a flash drive.

For more, see: