The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the importance of virtual connections. But our reliance on technology has also brought a number of vulnerabilities to light. In 2018, cybersecurity incidents resulted in business losses of $45 billion — and with hacking attempts and other malicious internet threats skyrocketing due to a massive uptick in remote work, it’s no wonder that many are worried about their safety online.
But, as it turns out, the risks may be even greater for individuals than for businesses. Since only 25% of organizations never actually test their disaster recovery system, many already have plans to prevent and mitigate internet crime. Of course, phishing schemes and computer viruses represent only a small portion of criminal acts perpetrated online. And according to New York Attorney General Leticia James, residents of the Empire State should be very careful about sharing their private photos — even if they think they trust the recipient.
According to the Attorney General’s office, the pandemic has actually caused a spike in revenge porn and internet sexual abuse cases. Since more people are now communicating with potential and current partners online, sending intimate photos and images through apps, social media platforms, and text messages has now become even more common than before. That might raise a few eyebrows, but as long as both parties are consenting adults, there’s nothing inherently illegal about this practice.
What is unlawful, however, is so-called “revenge porn.” This term refers to intimate images or videos that are taken or shared without the consent of the individual pictured. In many cases, instances of revenge porn involve sharing this private content on larger, public web forums — but they can also involve person-to-person sharing. Not surprisingly, 80% to 90% of revenge porn victims are women.
As explained by Attorney General James, “Revenge porn is a vicious form of humiliation and control that disproportionately affects women, and we will continue to fight this cruel form of degradation in New York state… We also warn anyone thinking of sharing revenge porn and exploiting their partners to think twice, as we will work with local law enforcement to prosecute all individuals engaging in the illegal act to the fullest extent of the law.”
While not all 800,000 sworn law enforcement officers serving nationwide are required to bring charges pertaining to revenge porn, New York State passed a law last year that criminalized the publication and spreading of revenge porn. Criminal penalties may include up to a year in jail, as well as civil damages. New York victims can also seek a court order to have online images removed, though most people will tell you that there’s no way to completely remove something from the internet once it’s been uploaded. In New York City, even the threat to disclose an intimate image with harmful intent is illegal; the abuser may serve up to a year in jail and have to pay a fine of up to $1,000, in addition to other possible financial compensation to the victim.
It’s clear that New York is serious about criminalizing these acts. But how can New Yorkers (and those from other states) protect themselves from becoming victims? Aside from exercising caution when sharing intimate images, it’s generally a good idea to exclude any identifying physical features (such as scars, tattoos, or birthmarks) prior to sending them. You should also take care to exclude identifying information from online profiles and apps, both in pictures and in writing. Data like your full name, your employer’s name, your email address, or your social media handles should be hidden for safety purposes. You may also want to consider using apps (or switching on features within those apps) that offer safety warnings, such as notifications when screenshots are taken, “unsend” buttons, or the opportunity to delete images from messages with others.
Ultimately, there really isn’t a way to be 100% safe online. Fortunately for New Yorkers, there are laws in place that criminalize revenge porn — but it’s undoubtedly better to never find yourself in this situation to begin with. It’s essential to exercise caution in these uncertain times and to do everything possible to protect yourself.