A Canadian Woman's Nudes Were Being Spread on an App. Police Couldn’t Help

A New Brunswick woman found her nudes were being shared in the US. But she says the RCMP was unable to make a case because the app wasn't based in Canada.
February 7, 2020, 6:23pm
Illustration of nude woman in bed
It's tricky to track down revenge porn distributors when they're based outside the country you're in. Illustration by Emily Bernstein

Alexandra Gauvin first learned her nude pictures were being shared through an online chat app when a stranger from Alabama sent her a direct message on Instagram last summer.

The 25-year-old New Brunswick resident logged into her Instagram account and found a message request from the stranger claiming that someone was spreading Gauvin’s private photographs and identity through “ChatLive,” an app that facilitates conversations between strangers.

“I just really wanted to bring it to your attention cause they said it was you and it looked like you and I thought you would want to know about it,” one message said.

“I said, ‘I only sent nudes to one partner ever...so it’s not me,’” Gauvin said, and asked him if he still had the pictures. The man sent her photos and, sure enough, they were of her.

“Oh My God, I had so many emotions...We had three years of trust and he completely broke it,” Gauvin said. She tried to reach out to the former partner, but he had blocked her number after they had broken up.

So, she went straight to the RCMP. Officers committed to investigate the case, but returned to Gauvin in February, empty-handed. They said they were unable to track down information linking the ChatLive account to a specific person.

Nude photos are an increasingly popular medium to express intimacy. Research suggests that about one in four teenagers and nearly half of all adults have sent a sexy pic. In Canada, spreading someone’s naked photos without their consent, an act known as nonconsensual porn or “revenge porn,” has been considered a criminal offence since 2014, when parliament passed Bill C-13: the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act. But Gauvin’s case highlights how tricky it is to track down distributors of nonconsensual porn—and charge them—when perpetrators spread images via third-party apps or social media sites that are headquartered internationally.

According to Gauvin, police told her they weren’t able to find out anything about the ChatLive user who was spreading her photos because the app did not respond to their requests. Without any information about the account spreading her images, Gauvin said, officers were unable to compile enough evidence to issue a warrant that would allow them to seize the laptop and cellphone belonging to the person who originally received the nudes from Gauvin. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the app is headquartered outside of Canada, where the RCMP doesn’t have jurisdiction.

David Fraser, a lawyer who specializes in digital privacy, said the app’s location doesn’t have to present a roadblock, but it certainly can.

The “reality is that Canadian criminal law only operates in Canada, so Canadian law enforcement can’t compel someone (outside of Canada) to provide evidence,” Fraser said.

Requesting information from a third-party app headquartered internationally is further complicated by the fact that every government has its own laws. The U.S., for example, has generous freedom of expression laws that protect tech companies, said Moira Aikenhead, a PhD candidate specializing in tech and gender-based violence at the University of British Columbia School of Law. When pressed to monitor abusive, hateful, or untrue content, social media companies frequently evoke U.S. free speech laws, arguing users can’t be censored or controlled.

Pornhub Doesn't Care

That means Canada can’t force tech companies to hand over information about a user who is allegedly sharing revenge porn, and authorities in another country might not be in the position to help Canadians if the request infringes on the tech company’s rights.

“That’s going to be the vast majority of cases because there aren’t that many apps or social media companies based in Canada,” Aikenhead said. “It’s practically very hard for police to get information about internet users.”

Gauvin maintains that the RCMP told her it couldn’t track down the person spreading her photos because it unsuccessfully dealt with American authorities—even though ChatLive’s parent company, Omega Media Corporation, told VICE it’s based in Ireland and has no offices in the U.S. (Omega would only have to comply with U.S. law if it had operations in the country.)

An Omega spokesperson, who refused to disclose his full name, said the ChatLive app is currently down while it undergoes "updates." That means the account that allegedly spread Gauvin's pictures is also unavailable. The app was still active when Gauvin first reported the case to police.

The company said it has not received any requests from Canadian authorities.

An RCMP spokesperson, Jullie Rogers-Marsh, did not respond when asked why Omega said it did not receive requests from Canadian authorities, but said it’s standard for Canadian officers to collaborate with law enforcement in other countries. She also said it’s common practice to reach out to the companies themselves.

According to Aikenhead, there needs to be more regulation of tech companies, so that people like Gauvin are better protected—and regulation needs to be international in scope.

“We can make whatever legislation we want in Canada, but if a company knows they are protected, they’re not going to worry about it too much,” Aikenhead said.

Once nude photos spread online, it’s virtually impossible to stop their reach completely. A recent VICE investigation found that even Pornhub and other sites that say they’re using apps that automatically remove nonconsensual porn are doing a half-assed job at best.

“Once something is posted online, anyone can access it, download it, and hundreds or thousands of people that can have it,” Aitken said, adding that until tech companies face real consequences for facilitating nonconsensual porn, whether inadvertently or not, they won’t do much about it.

Gauvin won’t see the person who allegedly spread her nudes charged unless she gets concrete evidence linking someone specific to the account that allegedly shared her images.

“I was sad, I was angry. It was really a disturbing moment,” Gauvin said. “Governments really need to upgrade their policies and do something about this.”

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.

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