Abortion provider BPAS under attack from hackers

Following the arrest of a hacker who planned to publish women's details, there have been 2,500 attem

Last week, a 27 year old man was jailed for stealing the personal details of 10,000 women from Britain’s largest pregnancy advisory clinic.

James Jeffery, a member of the hacking collective Anonymous, planned to publish the names, email addresses and telephone numbers of these women, which he took from the website of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail at Southwark Crown Court.

But the risk to BPAS is far from removed. Indeed, the BBC reports this morning that in the five weeks since Jeffery’s arrest, a mind-boggling 2,500 attempts have been made to hack into the advisory service's computer systems.

As yet, none of these attempts have been successful, and BPAS has reassured women that their details are safe. But this is a seriously worrying development. Around 60,000 women contact BPAS each year, and 53,000 have abortions under their supervision. Their privacy is paramount. Sentencing Jeffery, Judge Malcolm Gledhill spoke of the potentially “terrible consequences” of the women's details being published:

Many of them were vulnerable women, vulnerable simply because they had had a termination or because of their youth or because their family did not know about their situation.

That is quite apart from the risk to their personal safety from anti-abortion activists.

So where are these latest hacking attempts coming from? It is difficult to say. The IP addresses suggest that almost half of the computers used during these hacking attempts come from the US. However, as the BBC points out, the nature of hacking means it is impossible to say with any certainty that this means the hackers are US-based.

The US is home to a far more virulent and live debate on abortion than we currently see in the UK, but there is serious cause for concern about the direction of travel on home shores. Elements of government are undeniably hostile to abortion. Hardcore anti-abortion backbenchers like Nadine Dorries are encouraged by sympathetic ministers like Andrew Lansley. Dorries’ proposals on  that women undertake independent counselling before they are allowed to have an abortion has been adopted by the Department of Health despite the fact that the Commons voted against it. Lansley recently announced spot checks on abortion clinics – including those run by BPAS – after reports that a small number of doctors were pre-signing consent forms to circumvent the rule that states that two doctors must attest a woman’s sanity before an abortion is allowed.

Clearly, the assault on BPAS’s cyber-security is something else altogether – a renegade, bottom-up attack by what appears to be a collection of individuals rather than an organised political force.

But it is a reminder that the battle on abortion is not yet won. Emily Thornberry, the shadow attorney general and a pro-choice campaigner, has called for the police to prosecute anyone who attempts to break in to BPAS’s computers. She was right to do so. Whether the attacks are coming from hackers or ministers, the law must protect women’s rights to both abortion and to medical privacy.
 

An anti-abortion rally outside Parliament. London, 2007. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA