It’s completely normal for people in chat rooms to talk about their personal lives with total strangers. Remaining anonymous, many members feel comfortable discussing their sexual encounters and exchanging nudes. But anonymity also allows hackers to penetrate chat rooms with fake IDs and use whatever incriminating information they find to blackmail users.
In November last year, Cho Ju-bin, a South Korean national was found guilty by the Seoul central district court of leading a group that specialised in blackmailing girls into sharing sexual videos that were later posted on pay-to-view chat rooms.
In a similar case, a secret chat room named Bois Locker Room was exposed in India by a female participant in the group in May, 2020. Many members of the group, who were mostly male and underage, were found discussing ways to assault their female classmates.
As corruption watchdog Transparency International stated in a recent report, “evidence shows that sextortion disproportionately targets women.”
To understand what this experience is like on a personal level, we spoke to an 18-year-old woman from India.
Ayesha* was a social media influencer before her intimate conversations were leaked on the darknet in November 2020. Here she explains the pitfalls of befriending people in chat rooms and not paying attention to privacy policies.
As a teenager, I couldn't have asked for more: I had 72,000 plus followers on Instagram, 39,000 on Snapchat, and I was part of hundreds of chat groups, giving talks on how to become a social media influencer, and wondering if my iPhone 12 had enough storage for the content I was creating. But that was all until last November. Now I don’t use social media and refrain from even using my phone. I’ve also stopped using Alexa because I constantly feel like someone is spying on me.
It all started on the morning on November 2, six days to my eighteenth birthday. I woke up thinking about what turning 18 would mean. “I would be free, legally,” I told myself. “Free to make my own decisions, go for night outs and get my driving license.”
Half asleep, I checked my phone. There were three deleted WhatsApp messages from an unknown number, among other alerts. I slept again. Minutes later, I received a call from the same (unknown) number.
“Hi Ayesha! How is the birthday week going on? What are your plans for the special day? I have a big surprise for you. Are you ready?”, the caller asked, then hung up.
This left me confused but I just assumed it was one of my followers.
Later in the afternoon, I received a notification on Telegram from the same number. It was a porn clip with my face on another body.
The video disappeared from the window. I freaked out and locked myself in a room in a state of shock.
That was just the beginning. Each day, I’d receive morphed porn clips featuring my face.
Next, I got my pictures, videos, audio—intimate content that I had shared with Andrew Burnett—my ex-virtual boyfriend.
That was when I realised that my friendship with him and his sudden disappearance was a ploy.
I got introduced to Andrew in April 2020 in a chat room I had joined for fun. It was called Soulmates Forever. He said he was a college student from Germany. Andrew would flirt with me even as more than 20 participants were active. We’d talk about love, trust and relationships.
A week into knowing each other, we both started interacting in a separate chat room. We named it Only us, Forever!
After three weeks of incessant conversations, one day, Andrew vanished. His mobile number was not reachable.
Now, in November, my chats with Andrew were back to haunt me.
I was told that if I wanted them to stop uploading my videos to porn sites, I had to send them my nudes. I complied.
“Download Confide,” read one of the messages I received on Telegram.
After I downloaded the app, I started receiving self-destructive messages. “Want to see your b**bs.” “Show us your wild side.” “Talk dirty”.
Having followed the instructions, I could not face myself in the mirror. I felt suffocated and experienced panic attacks. Every moment, I thought of killing myself.
I could not confide in anyone in my family or outside. I had never felt more ashamed.
On December 15, I wrote a suicide note detailing my experience and put some sleeping pills near my bed. While meditating, I got reminded of a Twitter account that I used to follow. It was an NGO, Indian Cyber Army.
I contacted them over the phone. I shared with them all the screenshots, my profile IDs and Andrew’s details. They assured me that I need not file a police report; my identity would not be disclosed to anyone and they’d take action.
Within a week, representatives of the organisation informed me that the profiles of all those who were part of the chat room were blocked. Fake ID was used to buy the mobile number from which I received calls.
I’m made to understand that the content has been deleted from the darknet and chat rooms.
It’s over but this episode has left me a changed person. I’m now petrified of the virtual world. I’m consulting a psychiatrist, and that has helped.
They say that the pandemic has brought us closer to technology, but I don't want to be part of this new normal.
Name changed to protect identity.
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