By Melanie Ehrenkranz of Mic.com
Nearly three years after dozens of celebrities and actresses were targeted in a massive revenge porn campaign called the Fappening, women are under attack again.
In March, thousands of current and former male Marines were discovered to be sharing a massive stash of explicit nude photos without their subjects’ consent. The same month, someone reportedly leaked more private images of women in Hollywood, and stars like Emma Watson and Amanda Seyfried, allegedly targeted in the attack, are taking legal action.
Hacks like these are more than invasions of privacy. They’re serious personal attacks that more often than not fit the description of a sex crime. The distribution of explicit or sensitive images of someone without their consent is a form of revenge porn, or “image-based sexual abuse,” Durham University law professor Clare McGlynn said in an interview with Refinery29. This type of harassment is difficult to both prevent and enforce: When the Marines’ private Facebook group for nude photos was busted, users simply flocked to other, more off-the-radar sites.
As lawmakers have fought for harsher punishments for revenge porn distributors, there’s another way to protect victims: cybersecurity measures that protect users from having their personal images spread around the web. It’s an urgent reason to bring more women, who are disproportionately targeted in these attacks, into cybersecurity — a field with dismal gender parity and an inability to develop a work culture that allows them to thrive.
Revenge porn has millions of victims
Posting someone’s nude images online without their consent isn’t a form of harassment unique to celebrities. As many as 1 in 25 internet users in the United States (approximately 10.4 million people) has been threatened with or actually experienced having their explicit photos or videos posted online, according to a study from the Center for Innovative Public Health Research. The study showed that individuals from communities enduring the most harassment online also experienced a higher rate of revenge porn threats.
“Our findings show that particular groups — such as young adults and lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans — are not only much more likely to be victims of nonconsensual pornography, but are more likely to experience a range of online harassment and abuse,” lead researcher Amanda Lenhart said in a statement. “This includes other types of privacy violations, such as having their online or phone activity monitored, or having their passwords stolen or coerced by others.”
But many people still don’t take revenge porn attacks seriously. Brianna Wu, a video game developer and game studio founder, is currently running for Congress on a platform of privacy rights and inclusive technology. She knows the perils of online abuse firsthand. “We’ve seen young girls commit suicide after being violated online without consent,” she said in an email to Mic. “This is causing immense harm, but many men in tech are blind to it.”
“I was really amazed by how many men I knew in tech considered the Fappening on Reddit a fun diversion,” Wu said. But when she “tried to talk to them about it being a sex crime, a light did go off.”
The tech industry isn’t set up to prevent revenge porn
Mary Anne Franks, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law and the legislative and tech policy director of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, treats revenge porn as a “war on three fronts: legal, technological and social.” Socially, there’s been progress since 2012, she said, but her organization is still trying to “appeal to the tech industry to get a handle on the problem that they helped create.”
Tech companies rush out new products with lofty dreams of changing the world, but rarely do innovators appear to have considered the possibility of their revolutionary products being weaponized. “What’s particularly missing from that conversation is, ‘How will this affect women?'” Franks said.
“You can see that just in the way that Twitter is designed, you can see that in the way that Facebook” — which she said still hasn’t figured out how to prevent clips of rape and child abuse from popping up — “is designed,” she said. Franks also noted Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg’s previous creation, 2003’s Facemash.com, a website that allowed users to rank women on attractiveness based on their Harvard ID photos. “It’s not a coincidence that we ended up with the features and products that are heavily male dominated,” she said.
So when “Facebook says, ‘Oh, we’re trying to figure out ways to get a handle on [violent, abusive content],’ that should be an unacceptable response,” Franks said. “Because if they didn’t have a handle on it before, they shouldn’t have rolled out the product.”
Facebook did recently address abuse issues following the Marines United scandal. New guidelines will address revenge porn by using photo-matching technology to stop the spread of nonconsensual images.
As Wired notes, this will be helpful in mitigating revenge porn, but not preventing it. And it took a headline-grabbing scandal to nudge Facebook to roll out this protocol, when it should have anticipated the needs of its users before bad press forced its hand.
Another problem: The cybersecurity business is heavily male — and heavily white
According to a new report, women “account for just 11% of all cybersecurity professionals, earn less than their male counterparts across the board and generally feel underappreciated by their employers,” Fortune reported.
Silicon Valley is notorious for its lack of diversity, its deeply rooted bro culture and, as a result, its pervasive exclusion of both women and people of color from the types of roles that can reshape that culture. It’s unsurprising that this trend persists in the cybersecurity industry, and that it extends beyond the business concerns to affect the internet’s most vulnerable users.
“It is entirely possible that these men never imagined the internet would free us from our earthly limitations,” Jenna Wortham wrote in the New York Times. “Instead they strove to create a world like the one we already know — one that never had equality to begin with.”
Cybersecurity experts have the ability to mitigate online abuse from a technological standpoint: They can create more efficient algorithms that scan the internet for revenge porn and quickly wipe it before it’s visible. Tech companies have the power to more strictly enforce the removal of such content. The Brookings Institution has recommended device manufacturers and internet companies develop webcams that are more easily obscured so that hackers can’t use them as surveillance devices. (In the meantime, you can always stick a Post-it note on yours.) Brookings also suggested that these companies can better encourage users to make sure they have strong passwords with less easy-to-guess security questions.
What women can offer
“Study after study has shown that women are more risk averse,” Tina Gravel, senior vice president of global channels and strategic alliances for Cryptzone, said in an email referencing a Harvard Business Review report. Gravel said that this finding can be an advantage in terms of developing the next generation of infrastructure and tech needed to stave off cybercriminals.
“Women are more likely to build these systems with security and risk reduction in mind and look for increasing ways to decrease risk, which will benefit us all,” she said.
Franks said that until the tech industry scraps its flawed way of thinking — products exist, therefore they are valuable and should be protected even if they have issues — its products will continue to imperil women and minorities. As it stands, “the welfare of the people most likely to be hurt is always going to be an afterthought,” Franks said.
And those most likely to endure harassment are going to be able to put those issues on the radar before they come up. That’s why a diverse team is so important.
Legislators need a better grasp of consent in the digital age
Rape culture still permeates our everyday lives — from media to victim blaming to sympathy for convicted rapists. It is also a pattern of behavior that persists among representatives in the legal system, according to Franks, which can contribute to the normalization of online sexual violence.
“If we’re talking about legislators, the major problem is getting people past really, really outdated ideas and really moralistic ideas about sexual behavior,” Franks said. “When women are sexually assaulted, or they’re catcalled or when they’re harassed at work, we have this tendency to treat them as though it were their fault or as though the things that are happening to them are just not that serious.”
Franks said that the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative believes that the war on revenge porn can’t hinge purely on strong legislative reform and better practices from tech companies. It also requires a society that makes victims of online abuse feel safe speaking up about their experiences. It means people in power, like courts and lawyers, need to fully understand the issue at hand. It means approaching this type of harassment with empathy, not shame.
“There are so many legislators who will honestly, in front of people, say, ‘Well, I don’t know why people are sending naked pictures to begin with,’ or, ‘If you’ve ever sent a naked picture before, you probably deserve it if they were to distribute it to someone else,'” Franks said. “There’s this really bizarre attitude toward sex that you see on the part of many legislators,” who are not just predominantly white and male, she said, but also “tend to be older.”
And tech companies need to step up
Wortham discussed her conversation with Alice Marwick, a fellow at Data & Society, summarizing Marwick’s point that “Silicon Valley tends to be ruled by a libertarian viewpoint — the notion that the less regulation and political interference in technology, the better.”
But the denizens of Silicon Valley also have a responsibility to regulate the spaces they’ve created, which too often afford their users the ability to discriminate, cyberbully and threaten others with spreading their private information. Franks said Silicon Valley tends to have a hands-off, no-regulation mentality, which has “proven to be pretty disastrous. … Many of the laws being written are not going to be terribly effective because the tech industry has so much immunity,” she said.
Many are hoping the legal system will catch up with tech and more rigorously enforce perpetrators of revenge porn. Until then, as Wired’s
Emma Grey Ellis has written, “tech companies have even fewer excuses for lagging than Congress.”
Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google, Bing and Yahoo have all adopted policies, beginning in 2015, that ban revenge porn from their platforms. But these companies can still stand to work toward pre-emptive measures, as Franks noted — like waiting to roll out products or features until teams have deliberated on all of the ways, good and bad, they might affect users.
Diverse teams build more inclusive products
A diverse team is not only good for a company’s bottom line, but also ensures that its products cater to the needs of a more diverse consumer base.
“The single most obvious reason to push hard for diversity is that promoting diversity means promoting understanding,” journalist and engineer Ipsita Agarwal wrote in a 2016 Medium post. “And that leads to better products that solve problems for those who might’ve otherwise been sidelined.”
Those in power can hire more women into cybersecurity, and also ensure they have female role models or mentorship when they arrive.
They can ensure that both men and women have equal opportunities to rise within the company. They can push recruitment teams to look for candidates in the right places (no, it’s not a “pipeline problem”), foster an inclusive environment and weigh men’s and women’s qualifications equally when considering them for a promotion.
“We need to help break down stereotypes and show young women that the field of cybersecurity is open to them,” Brenda Piazza, director of cybersecurity at CBIZ MHM, LLC, said in an email. “We need more women to enter the field, to demand equal pay and to help other women enter the cybersecurity industry.”
In this specific instance, hiring more women — women of color, women from the LGBTQ community, women from the trans community — into cybersecurity will not only economically benefit the company itself, but it will lead to products and solutions that better address the privacy issues a larger breadth of consumers face.
“Without a diverse set of individuals contributing to the industry (be that females, minorities, etc), we simply close the aperture by which we see risk, and that is harmful for everyone,” Gravel said.
Franks agreed: “The more diverse experiences you have in the room, the more likely it is you are going to see problems before they arrive.”
Who better to grasp what vulnerable users might face online than individuals who are disproportionately targeted?