Fox 16 Investigates: Posting the Personal

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Sexting, Snapchat, Tinder and Facebook. The most intimate details of our personal relationships can happen through technology these days.

Women across the country and right here in Arkansas are learning there are privacy risks to digital intimacy.

Fox 16 Investigates has been looking into websites where anonymous users trade and collect explicit photos of women. We found some were sent to intimate partners while others were hacked from private accounts.

"First, it's initial shock - cause you're shocked to see yourself out there on this website," says Tara Ward, whose photos were posted without her consent.

She never would have pictured herself on an explicit photo-sharing site.

"It almost feels like a version of being violated, through the Internet," she adds.

Last winter, an email hack from five years ago came back to haunt her. Photos stored under a passcode popped up on an anonymous sharing site.

"They basically tell you that you have two choices: you could either do what they ask you to do or they're going to post all of your photos to all of your family," Tara explains.

What happened to Tara is known as "sextortion." Hackers, or even significant others threaten exposure of personal photos if you don't supply money, sexual favors, or other images. Revenge porn is also a problem, where jilted exes get even by sharing intimate photos publicly.

"This subject is just really exploding. And the sextortion - even courts have described as the greatest problem to teens right now," says Michael Flannery, Professor of Law at UALR's Bowen School of Law.

According to Flannery, Arkansas is ahead of the curve. This year it became one of the first two states, along with Utah, to pass a law to make sextortion a crime. Arkansas also has a "revenge porn" law on the books.

"Just because it's available doesn't mean it's legal and doesn't mean that we shouldn't regulate how we use it," Flannery continues.

But state laws, Flannery acknowledged,  have left gaps. States across the country are grappling with these same gray areas.

Revenge Porn Law

If you're a victim, one problem is the Arkansas revenge porn law requires there to be a current or former relationship (romantic or household) between the person pictured and the poster. 

In Tara's case, where her pictures weren't shared by someone she knew but rather a hacker, the law wouldn't cover that exploitation.

The poster must also have an intent to share the photos without your consent to embarrass or harrass you.

"The problem in that is we have a hard time demonstrating the purpose for which someone posted the picture," Flannery said. "If it's just posted for someone else to access and to download or share without some animosity that I've described, then that statute wouldn't apply to that person."

The "revenge porn" law only applies to individuals who are 18 and older, so it would not apply to teenagers, who make up a large portion of sextortion and revenge porn victims. But without some narrowing requirements as to intent and how it applies, the law might not be able to stand.

"The problem is, if you don't have an intent requirement, it allows for the application of that statute to anyone who posts any picture of someone else without their consent," Flannery said. "And those types of statutes that are enabled to do that are generally in the law thought to be overbroad and therefore unconstitutional." 

Plus, under the law, courts must weight whether if you snap it, and send it, whether you have an expectation of privacy that it won't get shared around.

"Its sole existence is to be a nasty website that sexually exploits women's photos and basically trades them like playing cards," Tara says.

The websites we found, like the one with Tara's photos, seem to be all about self-gratification. Men calling women's pictures "wins" and encouraging one another to share. Many images are personal and intimate. We won't show them. There are photos from all over Arkansas..big cities and small towns.        

"Once my privacy was invaded and I tried to do something about it, there just wasn't anything there," she says.

Users on these sites usually have options to post anonymously. In cases of sextortion, women are often too ashamed to come forward. Stats show many commit suicide rather than risk exposure. The blackmailers typically use face profiles, so even if women do report to police, it's a long process to identify the perps in order to prosecute.

"It seems like there's this whole dark world the law doesn't really contemplate?" this reporter asked.

"That's part of why there's such a push to educate policymakers about how this - how perpetrators operate and particularly what is the effect of disclosure on victims," says Flannery. 

"The harm isn't minimal. It's lifelong. You'll forever be changed after something like this," Tara says.

Nearly 80 percent of victims are young women or girls with an average of 15. The youngest documented victim was just 8-years-old. Many women who have found their pictures on these sites say they were underage when the pics were taken.

"The picture is up there and we're punishing someone for doing it. We need to figure out how to prevent it from happening," continues Flannery.

"We should be targeting laws and look at the laws we already have and wondering is there a better way we can cover this," suggests Tara.

She wants women to feel empowered to express themselves and their confidence.

"When you take these pictures - every single time - you have to be prepared, unfortunately that maybe something may happen," she says.

Until the law catches up with cyber criminals, women may have to protect themselves by weighing the risks between digital intimacy and damaging personal exposure.  

According to therapist Howard Turney, the damage is real. Technology has changed how relationships start, how we develop intimacy and what it means to violate someone's privacy. 

"It can be embarrassing. It can be hurtful, and it can really have a devastating effect on people," he says. "There were women who were actually considering self harm and things like that."

Depending on the website, there are steps you can take to put pressure on web platforms to remove your images. 

Click the links below for how-to guides:
Cyber Civil Rights Online Removal
Without My Consent


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