The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget ‘Celebgate.’ Hackers are gunning for the nude photos of ordinary women and underage girls.

A Whisper post made by a user soliciting nude photos, allegedly for an escort agency. (Whisper)
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In today’s soul-rending installment of Internet depravity, the fine people of AnonIB — the predatory image board that specializes in hacked, stolen and otherwise misappropriated nudes — have apparently found a new way to exploit and terrorize the women of the Internet. This time, they’re taking to the anonymous messaging app Whisper. And they’re successfully tricking women, and underage girls, into giving up their naked pictures.

“I tend to post about recruiting escorts for a high priced agency,” wrote one such scammer on AnonIB, who claimed to have hooked up “with girls 15 years younger than me” through the Whisper app. “Lots of interested girls always get in touch and share all kinds of pics … basically it boils down to playing a role.”

The scam unfolds within Whisper’s private messaging feature, so women presumably feel like the messages are private. But once the fake recruiters and modeling scouts have their photos, they upload them to sub-forums like /stol, AnonIB’s board for “obtained pictures,” where they live forever. Some academics call this genre “nonconsensual pornography” — it’s not revenge porn, per se, but it’s a gross exploitation and misappropriation of photos that the taker never intended to share publicly.

“[Original poster] was NOT kidding,” another successful scammer wrote. “I posted recruitment models for an agency. Many girls replied…”

This is, very sadly, not really news: It’s gross, and it’s disturbing, but it’s also the oldest trick in the social-media-solicitation book. Practitioners euphemistically call the art “social engineering,” but that oversells it: It’s basically lying, scheming and inventing until the target gives up information he or she really shouldn’t. This is the same technique, incidentally, that scammers frequently use to steal credit card or Social Security numbers. And the denizens of AnonIB have doubtlessly pulled similar feats of “social engineering” before: not just on Whisper, but on Facebook, Instagram, Craigslist, and any other Web site with a photo-upload tool.

But in the wake of the celebrity hacking saga, these scams are more public, and more scrutinized, than ever before. And it’s never been more clear that the scammers belong to an organized online network, devoted to exploiting women for bizarre sexual gain.

The practice is astoundingly widespread already. On AnonIB, perhaps the most infamous of these image boards, anonymous users upload everything from “creepshots” (up-skirt photos or other invasive images the subject isn’t aware of) to “drunk/passed out” photos of naked women, trading tips and congratulations and asking how to find their own. Equally creepy are the clothed images of normal women and girls, apparently ripped from their Facebook pages for the gratification of the Internet hordes.

Even on apparently mainstream sites like Reddit, nonconsensual porn is frequent — and unchecked. The forum r/PhotoPlunder (charming tagline: “they should have known better”), purports to share only naked photos that women have publicized themselves. But “publicized,” in this case, can mean “uploaded to the Internet for five seconds accidentally,” and there’s nothing stopping users from posting stuff they find on, say, their ex’s phone. There are also no guarantees that the women on these Web sites are of age.

Meanwhile, on Whisper, scheming users have begun to post ads looking for “models” or “camgirls” — but who or what you’re modeling for is unclear. In the span of half an hour this morning, I contacted half a dozen Whisper users advertising for models. None of them would supply the name of the company they allegedly worked for. But they did promise rates of up to $800 an hour for vague modelling and “paid date” services — provided the applicant send her nude photos to an anonymous e-mail address or Whisper account, first.

Whisper has said it’s on the lookout for this kind of social engineering: “From day one, our number one priority has been maintaining the safety of the Whisper community,” a Whisper spokesperson said. “As part of our commitment to safety, our app has always been 17-plus. We have a moderation team of more than 130 people who enforce our guidelines, in addition to numerous technical safeguards. We prohibit solicitation of any kind and will delete the Whispers and block users who violate our guidelines.”

But even Whisper seems to realize there’s only so much it can do. Moderation is good, algorithms are good — but no tool can truly outwit one person determined to trick another. No matter what rules Whisper or other platforms set, the people on boards like AnonIB will probably find a way. (One user recently reassured the board that there’s no account that can’t eventually be hacked, even as users and platforms wise up.)

Worse, long after the Celebgate spotlight moves on — long after women like Jennifer Lawrence get the “last word” in national magazines, long after well-paid celebrity lawyers fire off their flocks of takedown requests — Internet deviants will continue to prey quietly on ordinary women. We don’t know the names of the young ladies splayed across /stol, but it’s probably safe to assume they lack the money, publicity and high-powered legal teams to (a) get the photos taken down and (b) pursue any action against the people who made them public. Minus that — and this is the true tragedy — they have no real legal recourse.

AnonIB calls that a “major win.” But as a reflection on Internet culture and society more generally, it sure looks a whole lot like failure.