As ‘Sextortion’ Proliferates, Victims Find Precarious Place in Legal System


WASHINGTON — Ever since law enforcement started seeing cases in the early 2000s, the crime known as sextortion has proliferated on the Internet, altering the lives of thousands and ensnaring victims from college campuses to military bases.

On Wednesday, the Brookings Institution will release two studies billed as the first in-depth reviews of sextortion — in which someone uses nude photographs of someone to demand ever more sexually explicit content or other goods — and its precarious place in a legal system that acknowledges its existence but has yet to write it into law.

“It’s about the security environment in a world in which anyone can attack anyone from anywhere,” said Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings, an author of the studies. “When we’re thinking about that, we’re usually thinking about drone strikes or cyberattacks, which has all these same elements. We’re not usually thinking of sexual violence.”

Prosecutors say sextortion is increasingly common, with as many as 6,500 victims. It can involve hacking into victims’ computers to steal sexual images or even commandeer a webcam, then using the files to extort the targets.

More often, perpetrators use social media to coax one photograph from a victim, then use that to demand a continual supply. A State Department employee at the American Embassy in London was sentenced to more than four years in prison after threatening to put sexually explicit images of women onlinee.

Law enforcement agencies acknowledge the proliferation of sextortion, but it does not exist as a separate offense in federal or state law, nor does any government agency maintain data on it. No academic literature is available to educate the public or provide resources for victims. It is remote and anonymous. It involves high-level computer intelligence, and it gives sexual predators access to thousands of new potential victims, researchers say. And, Mr. Wittes said, it has not been addressed appropriately.

He said one of the most alarming things about such cases was the ability of perpetrators to scale up their assaults.

“It used to be that you couldn’t walk into a place and sexually assault a large number of people,” he said. With a computer, he said, “you can.”

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Benjamin Wittes, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, in 2014. He co-authored studies billed as the first in-depth reviews of “sextortion,” in which someone uses often-purloined nude photos of someone to demand ever more sexually explicit content or other goods.

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Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Brookings, for example, found at least 1,397 victims in only 78 cases. In one case, prosecutors identified “at least eight possible minor victims” of a California man who had posed as a teenage girl on social media to trick real teenage girls into sending him explicit photographs. In another, the government refers to “more than 100” possible victims of one perpetrator.

Yet because sextortion is not a crime, its perpetrators are often prosecuted under a piecemeal slate of state and federal charges, such as stalking, extortion and computer fraud. According to Brookings, 71 percent of the cases involved only underage victims, and virtually all adult victims were female.

Mr. Wittes said adult cases presented another problem. Cases with child victims do not have prosecutorial impediments because child pornography laws are so strict. But once the victim turns 18, much of that protection vanishes.

“Advocacy groups generally don’t focus on the adult women,” Mr. Wittes said. “To me, that’s the big blank spot in the whole discussion.”

According to Mary Anne Franks of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, victims are especially unprotected when a crime does not involve physical interaction.

“Once you become a woman,” she said, everything is fair game.

The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative has been instrumental in getting non-consensual pornography, also known as revenge porn, laws passed in 31 states. But she said she was hesitant to join Mr. Wittes in a call for legislation to specifically address sextortion, an offense she said was too narrow and could diminish the plight of other victims.

Instead, she advocates legislation that would make the wholesale distribution of nonconsensual explicit images illegal, regardless of how they are obtained.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here,” she said.

Mr. Wittes put the biggest onus on the manufacturers of webcams, which could make covers for lenses that a hacker could not get around. He also said people needed to better protect themselves with stronger passwords and two-step authentication systems that send access codes to smartphones or other devices.

“You don’t think of teenagers as attractive cybersecurity targets, or for that matter young women,” he said. “We have this mental assumption that things are different online, like the same incentives wouldn’t apply. But trust me, they do.”

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