Imagine your phone is hacked and your very personal information is stolen: phone numbers, pictures, emails, everything. You are now being blackmailed by the hacker. The request? That you send sexual pictures of yourself or engage in sexual acts on video. Fail to comply and your sensitive information or photos will be exposed to your family, friends, and colleagues.
This nightmare scenario is one faced by hundreds of people across the United States every single day—and there are currently no laws protecting them.
Welcome to the growing pheonomon of "sextortion," a widespread form of corruption in which sex—not money—is the currency of the bribe. Employers, teachers, public officials, and ordinary citizens are blackmailing victims to have sex with them or send them pornographic images in exchange for the protection of their own information. Think of this as the next step in the phone-hacking sex crimes perpetuated against female celebrities (opens in new tab) like Jennifer Lawrence (opens in new tab)—only they can happen to anyone.
Women, girls, and teenagers are the ones most at risk. Using false identities, online predators manipulate them to share private information and images. And so begins the vicious cycle: once these images are obtained, more and more are demanded. The victims cannot escape.
And perpetrators could be anyone. Earlier this year, Michael C. Ford, a former U.S. State Department employee, was sentenced to five years in a federal prison (opens in new tab) for using his computer at the American Embassy in London to hack into the online accounts of young women and search for sexually explicit content. He would then steal these images and blackmail his victims. Ford targeted hundreds of women, some as young as 18, and was ready to ruin their lives. He threatened to send their intimate photos and videos to family members or post them online—names and addresses included—if the women didn't make sexually explicit videos specifically for him.
A victim of a different sextortion crime, identified as Elizabeth, had nude images stolen from her email. When she did not comply with the hacker's demands for more sexual content, her photos were distributed to hundreds of pornographic sites with her identity included. She has been harassed and stalked since then, and says the shame and lack of control has at times taken over her life.
Victims of sextortion often suffer like Elizabeth—enduring devastating and long-lasting harm because the psychological (and reputation) damage is felt long after the initial crime. They live in constant fear that the images may show up at any time, or anywhere. Yet, victims fear that reporting the crime will only lead to more embarrassment, so they generally don't seek help.
According to a new TrustLaw report from the Thomson Reuters Foundation (opens in new tab), produced by the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, most acts of sextortion go unnoticed, unreported, and unpunished.
In the case of Ford, he was indeed charged, but only with computer hacking and cyberstalking. He did not face charges of extortion for sex or sexual images, because such specific laws do not exist.
The person who stole Elizabeth's photos was never prosecuted at all.
Despite increased recognition from law enforcement agencies that sextortion exists—and that it is indeed on the rise—the United States currently lacks adequate legal solutions to tackle the scope of this crime. While technology has radically transformed the way we connect, interact, share, and access information, the law has not been updated to address this fast-growing reality, leaving victims powerless and predators loose on the prowl.
Progress starts with reframing this type of blackmail as illegal. The TrustLaw report, produced for Legal Momentum (opens in new tab), America's oldest legal advocacy group for women, calls for the recognition of sextortion as a specific and growing sex crime—and for the adoption of appropriate legal measures to fight it across the United States.
In many cases, small modifications to existing laws could incorporate the definition of sextortion, protecting thousands of would-be victims. (For example, one very simple amendment could be made by adding "sex or sexual images" to the list of "things of value" that cannot be demanded through force or threat.)
Sextortion is also getting visible political support. Earlier this year, Katherine Clark, a Democratic representative from Massachusetts, called for (opens in new tab) a new federal law criminalizing sextortion, and Barbara Boxer, a Democratic senator from California, has formally asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch for information on how the Justice Department collects data on sextortion cases (opens in new tab).
But protecting victims who are being blackmailed into supplying sexual images of themselves shouldn't be a polarizing political issue. It is a common-sense reform that everyone should get behind in this dangerous new digital age.
Monique Villa is the CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation (opens in new tab).
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