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A phone is stolen or a computer hacked. Suddenly your personal information is being held for ransom. But the hacker doesn't want cash, he wants sexual favors. "Send nudes," he says.
It's sextortion, or the abuse of power to obtain a sexual advantage, and it's a growing cybercrime, with hundreds of individuals becoming victims every day. Yet, despite the increase in hacking-related sextortion, there has been little action taken to craft laws that would fit the crime.
Unreported and Unpunished
"Most acts of sextortion go unnoticed, unreported, and unpunished," according to Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. (Disclosure: Thomson Reuters is FindLaw's parent company.) She points to the case of Michael C. Ford as an example. In March, Ford, a U.S. State Department worker in London, was sentenced to five years in federal prison for hacking into the accounts of young women. Ford would steal the women's compromising photos, then blackmail them, demanding they produce explicit videos for him.
Ford was charged and sentenced, but only with computer hacking and cyberstalking. "He did not face charges of extortion for sex or sexual images, because such specific laws do not exist," Villa writes in Marie Claire.
Of course, sextortion is not just a cybercrime and its victims are not only young women. In May, Arkansas Judge Joe Boeckmann stepped down after investigators caught the judge with thousands of photos of young men who had appeared before him; Boeckmann had allegedly handed out softer punishments in exchange for nude photo shoots. That too would qualify as sextortion.
But the growth of digital technology has made sextortion increasingly a cybercrime. After all, if you can hack into someone's phone, you don't need to become a judge, correctional officer, or manager to abuse your power -- you just need to steal their personal information.
Adapting Existing Laws to New Crimes
A new TrustLaw report from the Thomson Reuters Foundation finds that most cases of sextortion go unpunished. The study surveys laws and practices related to sextortion across nine countries and six continents and concludes that most countries lack "adequate legal solutions to ensure justice for victims" of sextortion, including the United States.
"In many cases, small modifications to existing laws could incorporate the definition of sextortion, protecting thousands of would-be victims," Villa writes. That includes small changes, like "adding 'sex or sexual images' to the list of 'things of value' that cannot be demanded through force or threat."
There has been some movement in that direction. As Villa points out, Congresswoman Katherine Clark has proposed legislation criminalizing sextortion, while Senator Barbara Boxer has requested more information on DOJ sextortion data collection from the government.
In the meantime, however, sextortion remains a crime, increasingly committed online, that the laws address only tangentially, even while rates of sextortion grow.