Despite security flaws, legal failures: How to fight revenge porn

Summary:The celebrity stolen nudes debacle has everyone talking about failed protections and victims. Violet Blue thinks it's time to talk about fighting back.

fight revenge porn

The celebrity stolen nudes scandal has shined an uncomfortable light on everything from cloud security to sexual privacy. Now there's finally a very public conversation happening about how hard it is for women to fight online attacks such as this.

I think it's time to talk about fighting back.

It has never been more clear that when our intimate photos are shared without our consent, we're failed by every system we need to be able to trust.

Read this

Wake up: The celebrity nudes hack is everyone's problem

The celebrity nudes 'hacking' scandal is a wake up call about security and human nature.

We're failed by companies which haven't implemented adequate security practices; Snapchat ignored a huge, known security problem that ended with all of their users' information exposed. With the celeb photos this week, Apple admitted the private image thefts didn't happen by someone breaking in -- but by someone basically walking through a door.

It's the hallmark of a tech industry that celebrates corporate greed above user safety, all rush-delivered to the public in a Pandora's Box of bad security practices. We're seeing exactly how certain companies care more about protecting their shareholder's perceptions than protecting their users.

Our utilities, social media sites, apps, and all their privacy settings have a baseline of "normal" that doesn't take into consideration that half of the users are dealing with being targeted, and all the ugly experiences that can come with it.

Sadly, this road has been traveled for years by many other women -- but their experiences can give us a battle plan.

Nuke it from orbit

The first order of business is to find all the websites, social media accounts and forums your private images and videos are on. You'll need to find all the images and/or videos, and send the website and/or its host a takedown request.

Get the images taken down. I've detailed more on how to tailor your own method in this online privacy book for women.

The main thing to know about getting private photos and videos of you removed from a website or taken out of the public eye is that you probably can, there are most likely less of them out there than you think, and that this whole awful experience will pass like a bad storm.

Next, make detailed records of everything you find: screencaps, date and time, screen names, download all the photos you find (they have hidden data on them) and save it in an evidence folder. Set up a Google name alert to catch any new attacks.

Stand your ground

It feels tempting to run and hide, but don't delete your own social media accounts or "quit the internet."

Getting things off sites and out of search is like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole. One thing pops up, you deal with it, and then another thing pops up again and you have to deal with that. It’s annoying, tiring, and can make you feel worn down.

Online systems are broken when it comes to attacks on female targets.

But you’ll notice that it goes in waves, and each time the waves get less and less, until eventually they fade away. You can make them fade away faster by increasing your online presence.

A primary step in how to deal with "revenge porn" is that you should not delete your social media accounts; you should make as much content (that's not about the attacks) as possible. This will start to drown out the search results you want to eliminate.

If you remove your social media accounts, your blog or blog posts, or your normal online presence, it will allow the bad content to gradually take the place of any good search results you had going in the first place. Consider paying a reputation service to help you reduce the work.

It’s okay if you need to change your account settings to private for a while, or close comments on posts and photos – it might be good to do that anyway so you don’t have the extra stress. Either way, this is when you have to stand your ground.

Showing the world online who you really are – with dignity – is part of how you’ll fight fire with fire.

Celebrities can afford lawyers

A lot of women don’t end up being able to use the legal system for many reasons. It’s extremely expensive, it draws more attention to you, it’s incredibly brutal for your emotional state, it will reveal your identity more than it’s already being violated, and in many cases, the legal system can’t do that much to help you.

The deck is also stacked against you in court if your attacker is broke; you won’t be able to get damages from someone if they have no money. It’s all incredibly unfair.

However, you can accomplish some things with the legal system. In addition to awarding monetary damages (again, if possible), courts can provide injunctive relief, or court orders, that can require your attacker to stop doing something.

Depending on the laws you’re dealing with, you might be able to get a court order to require the attacker to stop posting images or videos, or take down images that have already been posted.

If you’re thinking about legal paths to justice for yourself, there are a few – but to get one question out of the way, no, you probably can’t successfully sue a website where someone else has posted photos of you.

That’s because Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects websites from legal liability for most content uploaded by their users.

Some women have tried to sue websites, and they’ve all lost, with the exception being one case where a Yahoo representative said the company would take something down and then broke that promise. 

The laws around the publication of intimate and private photos online without the subject’s consent are a mess. They are different from country to country, from state to state in the U.S., and things are different between civil, criminal and Federal laws and results.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but there are websites to help you navigate what you can and can’t do such as Without My Consent and End Revenge Porn.

Make sure you talk to at least two to three lawyers before making a decision about how to move forward. Choose one who doesn’t make you feel bad, ashamed, or like any of this is your fault.

If you’re in the U.S., ask your lawyer about the different causes of action you might consider pursuing, including Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, Negligence, Stalking, Breach of Contract, and Invasion of Privacy claims.

File a police report to put the harassment "on the record" -- but as many women have experienced personally, don't expect the police to do anything.

You can get a civil restraining order whether or not you have a lawyer, though a lawyer will make the process easier. Even if you can’t afford a lawyer, you should try to get a restraining order if one is called for.

If the court does not grant your request for a restraining order, and this happens often with online harassment cases, it will document that you’re having serious problems with someone harassing you.

If you need to build a bigger case later, that paper trail will be critical. Because court proceedings are public records, it’ll also put a dent in the reputation of your attacker.

However, as I mentioned, online systems are broken when it comes to attacks on female targets: the court didn't grant my request for a restraining order against a Wikipedia editor who threatened me in a personal email (later publishing my address on Wikipedia) -- and to this day the stalker is proud of that fact, making sure what he saw as a validation to continue his harassment stays on the Wikipedia page about me to this day.

This kind of institutional sickness is a reminder that the failures here aren't ours.

When the storm is raging, don’t get emotional online, don’t blame yourself, and do take steps to strengthen your mental and emotional health in real life -- by eating, sleeping and seeking support from friends, those who care about you, or even a skilled therapist.

Without My Consent (withoutmyconsent.org) tells us what we can do to deal with these feelings:

Taking active, practical steps to address the problem can help. Consulting with an attorney or law enforcement officers is important if someone has threatened you. It’s also important to see what practical and legal steps you can take to combat the invasion of your privacy.

Although a formal complaint process may increase your feelings of stress while it is ongoing, this kind of active coping with the situation helps some people feel better more quickly.

Addressing your feelings is important, too. Talking to people who care about you can help, as can talking to a counselor or therapist. Joining a support group may also comfort you and allow you to feel safer. Keeping a journal where you put your feelings into words also works for some people.

Doing things every day – especially small things – that make you feel good (for example, exercise, experiencing natural beauty, gardening), are important, as is finding a way to relax. Many people also find religious or spiritual practices help them cope with these kinds of painful experiences. Try not to rely on drugs, alcohol, or caffeine, as these substances can make things worse.

Notes and disclosure: More information is in my book The Smart Girl's Guide to Privacy, as well as further guidance and resources for surviving extreme privacy violations such as the ones discussed in this article. I am also an Advisor for Without My Consent, a non-profit organization that helps women who are victims of revenge porn find support and legal paths to justice.

Topics: Privacy, Legal, Security

About

Ms. Violet Blue (tinynibbles.com, @violetblue) is a freelance investigative reporter on hacking and cybercrime at Zero Day/ZDNet, CNET and CBS News, as well as a noted sex columnist. She has made regular appearances on CNN and The Oprah Winfrey Show and is regularly interviewed, quoted, and featured in a variety of publications that inclu... Full Bio

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