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The rise in sextortion online

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread throughout the world, cybercriminals have been taking advantage of the chaos to increase activity and find novel ways to wreak havoc on the world. Hacking and ransomware attacks are all up, but perhaps one of the lesser-known forms of cyberattack has also been on the increase.

As millions of people around the world were confined to their homes as a result of state-issued guidance to half the spread of the virus, porn networks responded by opening up their archives for free to users. In response, Pornhub reported an 18% increase in traffic, with spikes typically coming hot on the heels of social distancing measures being introduced.

It should perhaps come as no surprise, therefore, that incidents of sextortion are also on the rise. New research from Michigan State University reveals that it has increased significantly during the last few months, with the lockdown playing a major part in the rise.

Sextortion is when intimate images or videos are captured without the permission of the individual, and those images are then used to extort money from the victim. Why the increase in pornographic viewing during the lockdown makes us particularly vulnerable to this kind of extortion is that it doesn’t necessarily require the attackers to actually have intimate images of us. The mere risk that such images may have been taken without our knowledge is often enough to encourage victims to pay up. Attackers are tapping into the fear of not knowing whether the threat is a real one or not.

The researchers believe that society’s focus on issues such as revenge porn, where laws are generally pretty robust, may encourage us to overlook the potential risks associated with sextortion, and they urge legislators to ensure that current regulations also take account of this burgeoning form of cybercrime.

They suggest that the basis for our fear stems from the notion that hackers are capable of doing all manner of things, whether that’s viewing our browsing history, hacking into our smart speaker, or capturing our webcam. People believe all of these things are possible, and often possible without their knowledge, which makes the risk of sextortion so visceral as we lack the ability to truly gauge whether an attacker is bluffing or not.

The embarrassment factor also plays a part, with men less likely to report such crimes to the police than women, not only due to the shame associated with intimate images being in the public domain, but also their pornographic habits being investigated.

As such, the research reveals that the most common victims of such attacks are minors and females, but when money is the key objective of the attacker, they usually target men who often just want the issue to go away as quickly and as quietly as possible.

Different forms of extortion

The analysis revealed four distinct forms of extortion:

  1. Attacks targeted at people under the age of 18
  2. Attacks utilizing computer hacking
  3. Attacks involving those known to us, which usually means current or former romantic partners
  4. Attacks the target strangers, usually for financial reasons

Each of these four forms of sextortion has very different approaches and motivations. They also occur in differing frequencies, with the study revealing that 46% of victims of sextortion were minors, which the researchers believe should encourage law enforcement agencies to target their efforts in this area.

They reveal that the increasing activity of young people online has led to laws being drafted to protect them from sexual solicitation online, but few legal protections exist for adult victims. As our sex lives move increasingly online, the researchers are also seeing a growing range of cases emerging.

For instance, sextortion is increasingly being deployed in a domestic violence context, with partners who had previously shared images consensually then being blackmailed by partners who are using the images as leverage. It’s also a growing commercial enterprise, with businesses emerging to trick people into engaging in webcam sessions and then threatening to release the footage unless a ransom is paid.

While the researchers urge lawmakers to toughen up regulations, they also urge education efforts to be increased so that people, and especially minors, are aware of the risks and act safely online.

"As digital citizens, we have to start advocating for more accountability on behalf of platforms to take these images down, or to report harassment," they write. "A lot of offline crimes have an online component, and oftentimes law enforcement and our behavior don't catch up. We need to think about our own personal safety, both offline and online."

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