Sunday 16 December 2018

Your innermost secrets could go viral in seconds

Doxxing, slut shaming and revenge porn are all enabled by technology that leaves us vulnerable

ABUSE ON THE RISE: Margaret Martin, director of Women’s Aid, says the organisation has seen rapid growth in the number of women victims of ‘revenge porn’ seeking help and support. Photo: James Horan/Collins
ABUSE ON THE RISE: Margaret Martin, director of Women’s Aid, says the organisation has seen rapid growth in the number of women victims of ‘revenge porn’ seeking help and support. Photo: James Horan/Collins
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

LAST year, 2013, was the year of online viral porn. Not of porn stars, but your average punter. Someone's sister, neighbour, friend, colleague.

Ireland had never experienced anything like the phenomenon before.

Three separate incidents went global overnight, destroying the privacy of the people involved. There was nowhere for them to hide from the online explosion. Their names, faces, addresses and phone numbers spread rapidly along with graphic sexually explicit pictures. And all of this multiplied before their eyes.

Newspapers were prevented from publishing real names for privacy reasons. But the monikers stuck. We can list them now, still ingrained in our psyche: O2 Girl, Slane Girl and Rugby Threesome Girl. The irony that these nicknames focus on the women involved, while the men either became invisible or were considered heroic, didn't escape social commentary.

The internet came up with a new term to describe the social trend: slut shaming. Attacking a woman because she has sex in a situation that traditional society disapproves of, and gives the view that she should feel guilty and inferior as a result.

The Sunday Independent understands that the female involved in the 'rugby threesome' scandal left her job, moved abroad and changed her telephone number and online social networking details.

In the case of 'Slane Girl', no charges have yet been pressed against the men involved.

All the men involved were largely unknown to members of the public, and stayed that way. Save for the pair of high- profile rugby players who had to contend with chants from the stands.

The incidents have sensationally highlighted how a phone video, photograph or private message can find its way online with the click of a button – and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

Marie (not her real name) broke up with her boyfriend a few weeks before her nightmare experience. There, in full view, in place of her usual Facebook profile photo, was her nude image for friends, family and colleagues to see. She had no idea who posted it there. But what was even more terrifying is that she didn't even know that it had been taken. She was fast asleep at the time. It could only have been her ex-boyfriend.

Marie is just one of a growing number of Irish women who have contacted Women's Aid in desperation after their private information was circulated online. So common is the new practice that the term 'Doxxing' has been ascribed to it.

But like other women's experiences, the sexually explicit element of Marie's case elevated her situation to something which has become known as 'revenge porn' – the term used when a jilted partner disseminates nude photos and videos of an ex.

Marie explains: "There were lots of comments posted from all my friends. It was horrible, I didn't know what to do, I was so embarrassed and so scared. Then I saw a post from my ex. It just said 'slut'. I knew then it was him, he must have been able to access my Facebook account. I couldn't go back to college, everyone had seen this.

"I called Women's Aid and they told me it wasn't my fault. They also said they had heard of this happening to other women. I felt so relieved that it wasn't just me."

Far from it, it seems.

Women's Aid director Margaret Martin explains that the number of cases presenting to them is growing rapidly.

"It's a very dangerous issue and it needs to be addressed fast. The law is not adequate to protect women from this and it's leaving them in a very vulnerable position," she says.

"Like physical or emotional abuse, we are receiving more and more calls from women who say their emails and Facebook accounts have been hacked – as well as their partners using passwords to their phones and computers as a means of control.

"Their partners will disguise the control by saying, 'Don't you want me to be able to trust you?', and we findthat it's happening in younger and younger relationships."

With so many afraid to go to court and even more people who are unaware that their images are circulating, it seems we are just beginning to scrape the surface of the phenomenon.

A trawl through the internet by the Sunday Independent found pictures of Irish schoolchildren caught unaware on a public street at an angle known as an 'upskirt shot'. These pupils do not know that the photographs even exist.

Over one photo is the boast: "Had to get this one.... not many short school skirts in South Ireland so this was a nice surprise. Hope you like."

Underneath, an anonymous commentator has uploaded a picture of a gold medal and praises the man's work: "Well done. Nice to see some hotties from the Emerald Isle appearing here."

Another adds: "Superb. Love her white panties."

The man is even praised for his hidden camera technique, which has caught the girls off guard: "Great shooting! Perfect approach and result."

Elsewhere, on YouTube, two Irish women can be seen enjoying drinks at a house party where, unbeknownst to them, one of the guests is filming close-up footage of their cleavage.

And personal sex tapes are also being leaked.

Liam Brady, a private detective who has worked in Ireland for 37 years, explains how a phone user can take stills from a video to post on the net.

"When you shoot a video with your iPhone, a line of photos appears across the top of the screen," he says.

"They are digital stills. You can go through them and pinpoint exactly which shot you want and upload them from there."

If you have ever taken an intimate photograph or shot a sexual clip for your partner and sent the images over the internet, they haven't gone away.

All social networking companies have colossal data centres in industrial estates around Dublin and further afield which store every photograph, text and email you have ever sent, and have not yet deleted. In addition, all major phone operators store details of texts, with the exception of Snapchat, and calls made over the past two years.

Technology and information giants are storing your innermost secrets and private affairs. Five years ago the idea that hackers could steal information from even the most secure US government servers would have been unthinkable.

But in the new world we're living in, the threat of someone leaking your personal information in an unprecedented hacker attack seems ever more likely.

Some would say it's not a matter of if but when that day will finally arrive.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss