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