Sex + Extortion: A Call for Federal Criminalization of a Rising Cybercrime

“I can never get that photo back. It’s out there forever.”1 These were the words of 15-year old Amanda Todd as she documented her story of bullying, harassment, and extortion on YouTube.2 Todd used flashcards to narrate how she became a victim — detailing how her aggressor tormented her by posting an uncompromising photo of her on the Internet after she refused to give into his sexual demands.3

While Todd was struggling to find an escape route from her tormentor, meanwhile in the United States, Luis Mijangos was being prosecuted for hacking into the computers of approximately 230 victims and blackmailing them for sexual material.4 Federal investigation revealed that the 32-year old paraplegic had more than 15,000 web-cam captures, 900 audio recordings, and 13,000 screen captures of his victims saved on his computer.5

Todd committed suicide just over a month later after the posting of the 2012 YouTube video.6 To date, the video imploring for help and support by the Canadian teenager7 has garnered more than eleven million views.8 Todd’s suspected tormentor is a 38-year old Dutch male, who will be facing separate charges for blackmail and distribution of child pornography in the Netherlands before being extradited to Canada to stand trial.9 On the other hand, Mijangos — whose blackmailing and harassment scheme reached as far as New Zealand — was sentenced to six years, and is scheduled to be released next year.8

Both cases highlight the devastating and egregious effects of the cybercrime phenomenon informally known as “sextortion.” Sextortion is the use of coercion to intimidate victims into producing and satisfying demands for sexual favors.9 With the advent of new technologies and cyberspace, the concept of having clear and defined borders has diminished as human interactions have increased exponentially over the World Wide Web. Therefore, sextortion is a sex crime that has transgressed national borders: “For the first time in the history of the world, the global connectivity of the Internet means that you don’t have to be in the same country as someone to sexually menace that person.”10

Given the serious privacy issues that arise in connection with this cybercrime, one would think that the subject has been thoroughly addressed. However, sextortion is a heavily understudied issue.11 Despite it being a crime that has always existed, sextortion has recently garnered media attention as a growing threat12, and a proposal for federal criminalization of sextortion was just introduced in July.13

Although in the U.S. sextortion is recognized as a crime, there is no state or federal statute specifically classifying it as so.14 Instead, sextortion is prosecuted under a myriad of federal and state laws concerning extortion, cyber hacking, and child pornography, thereby producing inconsistent sentencing across jurisdictions.15 Furthermore, due to the Government’s strong interest in protecting minors, child pornography laws produce invariable sentencing results in federal courts between sextortion cases involving minors and those involving adults.16

Although there is much to be done with tightening cyber security and online privacy, the passage of the Interstate Sextortion Prevention Act — calling for the federal criminalization of sextortion — is a first step towards that direction.17

The Emerging Use of Smartphones and Social Media for Intimidating Witnesses in Criminal Prosecutions

With the technology available today, witness intimidation is a major obstacle that the court has to consider in criminal prosecutions. Witness intimidation is the act of “interfering with a witness’s testimony or cooperation in a criminal case.”1 Witness intimidation can take many forms, ranging from explicit threats to implicit harassment.2 Although criminals have historically pressured witnesses not to cooperate with authorities through the use of explicit or implicit harassment, the rise of smartphone technology and social media extends the reach of criminals’ ability to contact or relay messages to witnesses, which can potentially exasperate this dilemma and create a more pressing issue for the courts.3

With the use of smartphones and social media, criminals are easily able to identify those who are cooperating with authorities and intimidate them.4 Camera phones give criminals the ability to take pictures of people suspected of being a witness or a “snitch,” and easily relay that picture to others within seconds. Furthermore, a simple search of a person’s name on social media easily allows for access to personal information and presents ways to deliver threats or harassments between an intimidator and a witness.

In a recent case, a thirty-year-old Cleveland woman witnessed a murder and was subsequently harassed and threatened by friends of the suspect.5 It started with “old-fashioned” face-to-face witness intimidation.6 After learning that one of the intimidators “wr[ote] about her on his Facebook page and solicited others to post her picture, […] she feared for her life.”7

In a different case in Brooklyn, while an accuser of a molestation charge took the stand to testify about the incident, spectators in the courtroom were able to take pictures of the accuser with their smartphones, which were later found appearing on twitter.”8

Despite possible misdemeanor or felony charges for those found guilty of witness intimidation, more needs to be done by the courts to deter criminals from threatening witnesses and prevent witnesses from being exposed to potential intimidators.9. If the courts do not do anything to rectify this issue, logically, less people will be willing to cooperate with authorities out of fear of exposure of their identity. Obviously, advice of a witness is valuable information to the courts, however the court needs to consider the expense to the witness for turning over information. In order to fix this problem, courts should consider keeping witnesses identities anonymous. Moreover, in situations where the testimony of a witness is essential, the court should take more precautions in terms of limiting the spectators and technology allowed in the court while witnesses are present. Limiting the exposure of witness will likely help counteract the dynamic use of technology in witness intimidation, and therefore further compel witnesses to help serve justice by feeling secure in cooperating with authorities.