Lily Canter 9th January 2018
Another year, another nude celebrity photo hacking. In 2017 we saw a slew of privacy attacks on female celebrities as private images of Emma Watson, Amanda Seyfried and many more were illegally disseminated online.
But it is not just celebrities who have fallen foul of malicious hackers who seek to embarrass, exploit or blackmail victims in return for personal or financial gain.
Whether it is revenge porn threats from ex-partners or sophisticated hackers breaking into personal social media accounts to steal explicit images, cybercrime of this nature is spiralling.
In 2017 the Crime Survey for England and Wales included computer misuse offences for the first time – which include unauthorised access to personal information – and recorded a startling two million crimes.
But with much of this crime seemingly invisible, unless a celebrity is involved, victims are often suffering in silence unaware that they are far from alone.
Impact on victims
Twenty-five-year old Jade* from Leicestershire said a random blackmailer hacking her Snapchat account left her incredibly shaken.
“It properly shit me up. It was horrible. I didn’t know if I would be judged and I was scared that they knew who I was.”
She first noticed something was wrong when her phone kept receiving texts with new verification codes for her iCloud account.
“I kept changing the password and thought my account was being reset for some reason. I also went onto Snapchat and it kept logging me out. This happened about five times over two weeks.”
An account with a username made up of random numbers and letters then tried to add Jade as a friend on Snapchat and sent her a message.
“They said they had naked pictures of me and unless I sent them five more they would put them on the internet. They said ‘don’t save or screenshot these messages, as I will know’.
“Initially I shrugged it off and I deleted them and blocked the account. But then minutes later another random account tried to add me.”
This time the hacker sent Jade a topless photo of herself as evidence that they had something to blackmail her with.
Jade believes it was a photo she had sent to someone via Snapchat in the past and it had automatically synced to her iCloud account.
“I was like – what the fuck?! It properly freaked me out. Then they started saying they knew who I was and if I went to the police, the police wouldn’t do anything.”
Despite the blackmailer claiming they knew her, Jade is convinced it was a random hacker rather than an act of revenge porn.
“I have never given anyone access to my phone or shared my passwords. It was too sophisticated to be anyone I know. The new account added me within minutes. It was like it was computer generated, like a phishing tactic.”
Despite being intimidated Jade refused to be beaten by the hacker and did not give in to their demands.
Instead she deleted and blocked the account and then changed her Snapchat settings so if someone was not her friend they could not communicate with her.
“I then reset all of my social media passwords and put two lock authentications on iCloud and maximum security on everything. I have had no problems since.”
Jade’s advice to others is to try and get evidence if they are similarly blackmailed.
“I thought about going to the police but I had no evidence. I should have tried to take photos of the messages or screenshots. “
She also advocates standing up to blackmailers because once one demand is met they are likely to keep escalating things.
“Don’t give into them. Tell them to fuck off and delete them. They are probably doing it to dozens of women at the same time. I bet it happens to thousands of people and they are too embarrassed to say anything or are too scared to do anything.”
A spokesperson for Leicestershire Police said if a person is being blackmailed in any way, it should be reported to the police. It would then be investigated under the most appropriate laws – which would depend on the nature of the offence.
How to stave off hackers
There are a number of measures that can be taken to increase your online security and decrease the chance of your account being hacked, either by a stranger or someone you know.
Password protection is the most important preventative measure according to Scott Storey, associate lecturer in cybersecurity at Sheffield Hallam University.
“Even if you trust someone, never share your password with them,” advises Scott.
“And use different passwords on different websites.”
Try to set complex passwords made up of several unrelated words and follow the advice of the National Cyber Security Centre which can be found here.
“Never write passwords down in a book. Use tools like Last Pass which generates a complex password of 180 characters and saves them for you.
“There are lists of the most popular passwords available and hackers will try them against every single account using email addresses. Password1 is the most popular,” says Scott.
Wherever possible use two-step authentications as this could stop someone taking over your account even if your password has been compromised.
Snapchat supports this level of security and has easy to follow steps on its support website.
These systems notify you if someone tries to log into your account giving you a heads up on any unauthorised activity.
You can also use fingerprint scanners as an additional login measure on many devices now.
Check your hack history
Giant internet companies are prone to wide-scale hacks which can leave you in a vulnerable position especially if you use the same email and passwords on various sites.
In 2015 the email addresses and passwords of 68 million users were leaked on the internet when cloud storage firm Dropbox was hacked. The following year password details from 117 million LinkedIn accounts were being traded on the dark web.
Using the tool Have I been pwned? it is quick and easy to check whether any of your usernames or email addresses have ever been hacked so you can immediately change your passwords.
Don’t disclose everything
“The answers to many security questions can be found from open Facebook pages,” warns Scott.
Whether it is your pet’s name, your favourite sports team or your child’s date of birth, these identifying factors can be scraped from social media so think before you put them online.
What the law says
Under UK law it is illegal to make unwarranted demands with menaces in order to attain person gain or project loss on another person. It does not matter whether the demands are possible or in what manner the demands are made.
In 2015 a 17-year-old boy was jailed for a year for blackmailing two 14-year-old boys into sending explicit images of themselves.
A new Revenge Porn law introduced in 2015 also makes it illegal to disclose of private sexual photographs or films without the consent of an individual who appears in them.
Those convicted can face a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment.
Sexual material not only covers images that show the genitals but also anything that a reasonable person would consider to be sexual, so this could be a picture of someone who is engaged in sexual behaviour or posing in a sexually provocative way.
It is also illegal under UK copyright law to screenshot and share Snapchat picture messages without consent.
The image owner can sue anyone who does this for copyright infringement which is punishable by 10 years in prison and/or an unlimited fine.
*Jade’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
Lily Canter 9th January 2018