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‘I have moments of shame I can’t control’: the lives ruined by explicit ‘collector culture’ | Sexual harassment

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Ruby will never forget the first time she clicked on the database AnonIB. It is a so-called “revenge porn” site and in January 2020, a friend had texted her for help. Ruby is a secondary school teacher, used to supporting teenagers, and her friend turned to her for advice when she discovered her images were on the site.

“She didn’t send the thread that she was on,” says Ruby, 29. “She was embarrassed, so she sent a general link to the site itself.” When Ruby opened it, “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe that such an infrastructure existed: something so well organised, so systematic, fed by the people who lived around us.”

AnonIB was categorised by country – the US has the most entries, the UK is next – but then broken down by region, city and local area. “And when I say ‘local’, it wouldn’t be ‘London’ or ‘Birmingham’, a city of any size would have smaller, specific categories, like ‘Birmingham University students’,” says Ruby. The thread for Ruby’s town (population 55,000) stretched to 16 pages and with each intimate image of women and girls, there were comments with as much identifying information as possible by local users – names, surnames, the schools they had attended, who their relatives were. There were also lots of “requests” for pictures of certain women – often called “wins” (“Any wins on XXXX?” “There must be more of this slut out there.” “I can now look her boyfriend in the eye knowing I’ve seen his missus naked.”)

Ruby was horrified. “I was in shock. Disgusted that it existed, but also confused,” she says. “How could it be allowed?” But worse was to come. Four months later, she found her own pictures had been added to the site.

AnonIB has used various names over the last few years – always some kind of variation of “image board” and “anonymous”. It was shut down by Dutch police, but has since reappeared and is currently hosted from a Russian domain. In the past few months, it has gone behind a paywall.

AnonIB
Sites such as AnonIB post pictures searchable by users’ locality. Photograph: JGI/Tom Grill/Getty Images/Tetra images RF/Posed by model

Yet the site is not a one-off. It is just one example of what a report last month by the Revenge Porn Helpline (RPH) has termed “collector culture” – something the RPH identifies as “an emerging trend”, “increasing at pace”. In this case, collecting means posting, collating and trading intimate images of women.

“It’s one of the most dehumanising aspects of intimate image abuse that we see,” says Zara Ward, senior helpline practitioner at RPH. “Women are prizes to be passed around, shared and traded like a dystopian version of Pokémon. We often don’t know how these people gained the images in the first place – it could be exes, friends, or hackers – but this isn’t a place where women would consensually upload themselves. All we see on the comments is women consistently and aggressively objectified, humiliated and exposed.”

This happens on multiple platforms: Mega, Dropbox, Discord, anywhere groups can share. On Reddit, anonymous users post images of (likely oblivious) women with captions such as “trading my gf nudes” and “trading gf. Have bj videos too”. Interested parties are then usually directed to personal accounts on Snapchat or the messaging app Kik.

Although it is impossible to know how common this is, the evidence suggests it’s widespread. (When Ruby was added to the AnonIB thread in May 2020, she was image number 72,000.) One general study of intimate image abuse across Australia, New Zealand and the UK suggests one in five men have been perpetrators, and during lockdown – when online activity replaced real-life interactions – calls to the RPH doubled. (Its figures show that women are five times more likely than men to have their intimate images shared.)

“Traditionally, we think of ‘revenge porn’ as someone posting your images on Pornhub and sending you the link, or sending pictures and videos to all your friends and family to hurt and humiliate you,” says Elena Michael from the campaigning group #NotYourPorn. And, in fact, this is what current law nominally protects against. Section 33 of the 2015 Criminal Justice and Courts Act makes it illegal to disclose “private sexual photographs and films with intent to cause distress”.

Yet, says Michael, that is only one form of such abuse. “The truth is that most intimate image abuse is clandestine. It’s done without consent, but also, often, with no intention of the survivor ever finding out.”

Sophie Compton, who also campaigns against intimate image abuse with the organisation My Image My Choice believes “collector culture” could make up the bulk of cases. “I’ve been talking to survivors for 18 months and it’s huge – maybe more prevalent than any other form,” she says. “I’ve looked at the sites and the forums and the casual misogyny, the vile language, is absolutely chilling. The posters genuinely aren’t seeing victims as human, just stocks and shares to be traded. They could be anyone and everyone – and on sites like AnonIB which categorise by location, it could be the person standing next to you in Sainsbury’s.”

Clare McGlynn, professor of law at Durham University, says this is the “hardest message”. “People would rather think perpetrators of intimate image abuse are either perverts or an extremely malicious ‘other’ type of person,” she says. “The truth is that it’s everyday men and boys. Closed groups, lad chats, bonding over explicit images and ‘banter’ has become absolutely ubiquitous.”

Sometimes, it leaks out and the wider world gets a glimpse. McGlynn points to the rugby group at Oxford Brookes University that challenged players to get as many “Brookes girl” nudes as possible to share and rate. There is the “men-only” private Bristol Facebook group set up to share images of partners and ex-partners that gained 7,000 members in a matter of days.

Professor Nicola Henry, socio-legal scholar at RMIT University Australia, has studied the motives of perpetrators, looking at 77 platforms, image boards, community forums and blogging sites where images are shared and traded, and interviewed perpetrators.

“Despite a lot of media attention focused on revenge against an ex-partner as the key motivation, it’s more commonly related to sexual gratification or impressing online peers,” she says. “For instance, on some sites, images of wives and girlfriends are shared to get positive feedback from other users.” (“It might have been a bit of showing off,” said one perpetrator she interviewed. “After I’d built up quite a collection, I started to kind of take this pride in it,” said another.)

Whatever the motivation, the impact can be devastating. Ruby learned that her images were on AnonIB when a former schoolmate sent her a message breaking the news. The pictures were taken when she was 17, on a girls’ holiday. In one, she had been sunburned, and was lying topless on her front while a friend rubbed aftersun on her back. In the other, she was demonstrating the size of the hotel towels, not big enough to cover her.

intimate image abuse
Women are five times more likely to be victims of intimate image abuse. Photograph: PA/Posed by model

“On the scale of things, they were not that explicit – although in the context of that website, they looked suggestive,” she says. “I’d uploaded them for about three weeks after the holiday in a private Facebook album. I probably had about 400 Facebook friends at the time so whoever posted them was one of those people. I’ve resigned myself to never knowing who.”

But as a local teacher, she had to inform her employer; she has no idea if her students have seen the pictures. And in the immediate aftermath, she found herself bolting from a post office queue simply because the teenagers outside suddenly made her feel uncomfortable. She formed a WhatsApp group for other local victims from the thread; in her small town, news travels fast and friends share their stories. “It has been far worse for some of them,” she says. “Their images were often far more explicit. Some haven’t been able to tell family or friends. Some were pregnant and so distressed they had to make emergency visits to hospital.

“One girl wanted to pursue a career in the performing arts but she has put it off. She deferred her place at drama school because in that industry, image is everything. She didn’t know if she could cope with the anxiety of being Googled.”

For Helen, 28, it feels as if she is an entirely different person from the one she was before her intimate images were shared in an encrypted chatroom. This spring, she received an anonymous “tipoff” on her Facebook account that explicit pictures of her had been gathered in a Google Drive folder and posted online. The informer – who was later traced to Australia – attached some of the pictures and said they thought she would like to know.

She remembers collapsing on to her bed in shock; going for a run, dropping to the ground to cry, running again, then dropping again. The images in the message had been created in the course of a five-year relationship that had ended two years previously. “My ex had assured me they’d all been deleted,” says Helen. “We’d been speaking as friends right up until weeks before this happened. I had no reason to think he’d ever do that.”

More than 18 months on, she still struggles. “I’m single,” she says, “and dating is really tough. I used to be open, confident, proud of my sexuality. It has damaged something I loved about myself, made it something I have to fight for again.

“I have moments of shame I can’t control, moments when this fear arises that I can’t predict. I’ve had times when flirting with someone suddenly seems to cross a boundary I can’t understand. I’ve largely avoided intimacy as it’s too terrifying to really give that trust to another person.”

Helen has tried to find out as little as possible about what was posted and where. “I’ve kind of chosen not to know,” she says. “It could be a lot. I was with that person a long time.” Her ex-partner was interviewed by police and also sent her a message admitting to sharing the images, but adding he had “never meant to hurt her”. He said he did it for his own “kink”.

“As painful as it was to have it confirmed, I was happy that at least I had a confession the police could use,” she says. “Then it transpired that his claim of not wanting to hurt me was precisely what protected him from any prosecution.”

Ruby and the other victims in the WhatsApp group from her local town have also found no recourse in law. She reported her case to police who gave her a crime reference number and referred her to Victim Support. Others in her group heard nothing back. In one case, one woman said, the officer actually yawned and said it was the 20th AnonIB report of the day. It took a lot of collective pressure for their cases to be referred as cybercrime to the Regional Organised Crime Unit. There has been no update since.

“We really felt the police didn’t support us, but the law doesn’t support the police,” says Ruby. “Yes, there’s the website, the infrastructure: why are we allowing access to it in the UK?

“But there’s also the local element. Some of the images on the thread were FaceTime screen shots. The image in the corner of the man on the calls could clearly be seen. We positively IDed at least two of them. We know who they are, where they live and told the police – but they didn’t even knock on their doors. Perpetrators have so many admissible defences. ‘I did it for a laugh and didn’t think she’d see.’ ‘I was paid a tenner to upload pictures of girls in my area.’ Doing it for sexual gratification is an admissible defence. We’re campaigning to remove the motive element from the law. Sharing intimate images without consent is the bottom line and that’s what should be illegal.”

There are signs that things will change. The Law Commission review of the laws around intimate image abuse began in 2019; the final report this spring is expected to make nonconsensual sharing an offence. However, warns McGlynn, changing the law is a very slow process – and only part of the solution.

“It also comes back to culture change, education, work in schools,” she says. “Evidence from studies shows that just as teenage girls are pressured to send nudes, teenage boys are also feeling pressure to get nudes and share them, to gain kudos. Collecting digital trophies is becoming part of being a boy and a man – that’s what we need to change.”

In the meantime, Ruby is not sure that it’s worth knowing that your images are online, passed between others, traded, shared, collected and commented on by friends and strangers.

“It’s really difficult,” she says. “On the thread for our town, there are girls I recognise, who I haven’t spoken to since I was 16. You feel a sense of moral obligation. Do I tell them – even when I know nothing is going to come of reporting it and there’s nothing they can do? Is it better that they don’t know or is it better that they do know and are as distressed as we were? I’ve decided I’m not going to pop up and derail their life. Maybe ignorance is bliss.”

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Molly Russell inquest: social media ‘almost impossible’ to keep track of, says teacher | UK news

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The headteacher of Molly Russell’s secondary school has told an inquest into the teenager’s death it is “almost impossible” to keep track of the risks posed to pupils by social media.

North London coroner’s court heard of the “complete and terrible shock” at Molly’s school after the 14-year-old killed herself in November 2017. Molly, from Harrow in north-west London, killed herself after viewing extensive amounts of online content related to suicide, depression, self-harm and anxiety.

Sue Maguire, the headteacher at Hatch End high school in Harrow, was asked how difficult it was for a school to stay on top of dangerous social media content.

She said: “There is a level where I want to say it is almost impossible to keep track of social media but we have to try, and we have to respond to the information as we receive it.”

Describing the school’s “shock” at Molly’s death, Maguire added that teachers had warned students about the “dangers of social media for a long time”.

She said: “Our experience of young people is that social media plays a hugely dominant role in their lives and it causes no end of issues. But we don’t present a stance that they should not use it. But it presents challenges to schools that we simply didn’t have 10 or 15 years ago.”

Oliver Sanders KC, representing the Russell family, asked Maguire whether the school was aware of the suicide and self-harm-related content available to students on sites such as Instagram.

Maguire said: “At the time, we were shocked when we saw it. But to say that we were completely shocked would be wrong because we had been warning young people about the dangers of social media for a long time.”

The deputy headteacher, Rebecca Cozens, who is also head of safeguarding at the school, told the inquest once young people had gone “down the rabbit hole” on social media, it was a “deep one”.

Asked by Sanders whether there was an awareness of the type of material Molly had engaged with, Cozens said: “I don’t think at that time an awareness of the depth of it and how quickly it would snowball … and the intensity then, when you’re going down that rabbit hole it is a deep one.”

On Monday a senior executive at Meta, the owner of Instagram, apologised after acknowledging that Molly had viewed content that breached the platform’s content guidelines. Elizabeth Lagone, the head of health and wellbeing policy at Meta, said: “We are sorry that Molly saw content that violated our policies, and we don’t want that on the platform.”

Last week an executive at Pinterest, another platform Molly interacted with heavily before her death, said the site was not safe when the teenager used it.

The senior coroner, Andrew Walker, told the Russell family he would deliver his conclusions by the end of the week.

  • In the UK, the youth suicide charity Papyrus can be contacted on 0800 068 4141 or email pat@papyrus-uk.org, and in the UK and Ireland Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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Microsoft to kill off old access rules in Exchange Online • The Register

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Microsoft next month will start phasing out Client Access Rules (CARs) in Exchange Online – and will do away with this means for controlling access altogether within a year.

CARs are being replaced with Continuous Access Evaluation (CAE) for Azure Active Directory, which can apparently in “near-real time” pick up changes to access controls, user accounts, and the network environment and enforce the latest rules and policies as needed, according to a notice this week from Microsoft’s Exchange Team.

That might be useful if suspicious activity is detected, or a user account needs to be suspended, and changes to access need to be immediate.

“Today, we are announcing the retirement of CARs in Exchange Online, to be fully deprecated by September 2023,” the advisory read. “We will send Message Center posts to tenants using client access rules to start the planning process to migrate their rules.”

CARs is used by Microsoft 365 administrators to allow or block client connections to Exchange Online based on a variety of characteristics set forth in policies and rules.

“You can prevent clients from connecting to Exchange Online based on their IP address (IPv4 and IPv6), authentication type, and user property values, and the protocol, application, service, or resource that they’re using to connect,” according to a Microsoft document from earlier this year.

For example, access can be granted to Exchange resources from specific IP address, and all other clients blocked. Similarly, the system can filter access to Exchange services by department or location, or based on usernames.

Microsoft announced the replacement CAE in January, touting its ability to act fast on account revocation, disablement, or deletion; password or user location changes; the detection of nefarious activity; and other such updates, according to a blog post at the time by Alex Simons, corporate vice president of product management for the Windows giant’s identity and network access division.

“On receiving such events, app sessions are immediately interrupted and users are redirected back to Azure AD to reauthenticate or reevaluate policy,” Simons wrote. “With CAE, we have introduced a new concept of zero trust authentication session management that is built on the foundation of zero trust principles – verify explicitly and assume breach.”

With this zero-trust focus, session integrity – rather than a set session duration – is what dictates a user’s authentication lifespan, we’re told.

CAE not only aims to give enterprises greater and more immediate control over access and events, but users and managers may appreciate the speed at which changes are adopted, Microsoft claims.

“Continuous access evaluation is implemented by enabling services, like Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and Teams, to subscribe to critical Azure AD events,” Microsoft added earlier this month. “Those events can then be evaluated and enforced near real time. Critical event evaluation doesn’t rely on Conditional Access policies so it’s available in any tenant.”

Critical events can include a user account being deleted or disabled, a user password is changed or reset, or multifactor authentication is enabled for a user. There also are other events, such as when an administrator explicitly revokes all refresh tokens for a user or a rogue insider is detected by Azure AD Identity Protection.

Finally, for workload identities, CAE enforces token revocation for workloads, among other things, according to Microsoft. ®

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EU proposes new liability rules around AI tech to protect consumers

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The current EU rules around product liability are more than 40 years old, meaning they do not cover harm caused by drones and other AI tech.

The European Commission has outlined a set of new proposals to enable people who are harmed by AI tech products to seek and receive compensation.

The proposals were published today (28 September). They are designed to comply with the EU’s 2021 AI Act proposal, which set out a framework for trust in AI-related technology.

Today’s AI Liability Directive aims to provide a clear and comprehensive structure for all Europeans to claim compensation in the event they are harmed by AI tech products, such as drones and robots.

The EU’s directive includes rules for businesses and consumers alike to abide by. Those who are harmed by AI products or tech can seek compensation just as they would if they were in harmed any other way.

The rules will make it easier for people who have been discriminated against by AI technology as part of the recruitment process, for example, to pursue legal action.

An example of harm that may be caused by tech products is data loss. Robots, drones, smart-home systems and other similar digital products must also comply with cybersecurity regulations around addressing vulnerabilities.

The directive builds on existing rules that manufacturers must follow around unsafe products ­– no matter how high or low-tech they are.

It is proposing a number of different strategies to modernise and adapt liability rules specifically for digital products. The existing rules around product liability in the EU are almost 40 years old, and do not cover advanced technologies such as AI.

European commissioner for internal market, Thierry Breton, said that the existing rules have “been a cornerstone of the internal market for four decades”.

“Today’s proposal will make it fit to respond to the challenges of the decades to come. The new rules will reflect global value chains, foster innovation and consumer trust, and provide stronger legal certainty for businesses involved in the green and digital transition.”

Vice-president for values and transparency, Věra Jourová, said that for AI tech to thrive in the EU, it is important for people to trust digital innovation.

She added that the new proposals would give customers “tools for remedies in case of damage caused by AI so that they have the same level of protection as with traditional technologies”. The rules will also “ensure legal certainty” for the EU’s internal market.

As well as consumer protection, the proposals are designed to foster innovation. They have laid down guarantees for the AI sector through the introduction of measures such as the right to fight a liability claim based on a presumption of causality.

The AI Liability Directive will need to be agreed with EU countries and lawmakers before it can become law.

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