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Military revenge porn is thriving on anonymous servers and image boards. That makes it harder to stop.

The Pentagon and law enforcement will have a hard time tracing users who share nude photos of service members without their consent.

by Alexa Liautaud
Mar 26 2018, 5:13pm

Every day, anonymous users on the revenge-porn image board Anon-IB beg for explicit photos of U.S. service members. They ask for nudes of women by name and offer to swap the “wins” of the images they secure. They comment, repost, and bump up threads seeking women from specific bases or units. They’re relentless.

And there’s very little the women or the U.S. military can do about it.

Anon-IB is a “Chan” site registered in the Seychelles with servers in the Netherlands — both outside U.S. jurisdiction — and its users are anonymous and nearly untraceable. That means it’s next to impossible for victims to have their photos permanently removed or for investigators to figure out who posted them without a major international investigation.

“The site purposefully makes it very difficult to figure out how to take your photo down,” said Katelyn Bowden, the founder of a nonprofit advocacy group called the BADASS Army (Battling Against Demeaning and Abusive Selfie Sharing) who fights on behalf of revenge porn victims. “It’s not made for the victims to have any recourse.”

Anon-IB is far from the only site where graphic photos of service members are shared without the subjects’ consent. VICE News reported last month on the dozens of still-active secret social media groups where users share explicit and harassing content. But the site’s continued, active use more than a year after the Marines United scandal shows the persistence of online harassment among service members and the difficulties the Pentagon and law enforcement face in stopping it.

Read: The Pentagon hasn’t stopped the military’s revenge porn problem

Since the original Marines United Facebook group, which boasted some 30,000 members, was exposed and shut down in March 2017, the people sharing revenge porn have only become more sophisticated, adopting a range of technologies that make it easier to disseminate and much harder to trace.

Some users moved on to invite-only secret groups. Then came Google Drive and Dropbox links that didn’t require permanent membership and Reddit threads where users could post anonymously. Users have since graduated to proxies, VPNs, and anonymizing services and platforms like Anon-IB.

On a mainstream social media site like Facebook, users and investigators can report inappropriate content to the company and often get it removed or have the offending group shut down. The Pentagon collaborates with Facebook and others when it identifies abusers or images related to the military that violate the law.

But on a site like Anon-IB, “an investigator would need technical information from a variety of different service providers, all registered in different countries, in order to trace an individual user,” and bring him to account, said Dan Snider, an independent security consultant who has investigated Anon-IB for the past five months and written extensively about tracing the site’s source. “Identifying an individual [offender] is very difficult, particularly when dealing with disparate privacy laws of several different countries.”

“This is assuming the user did not take technical measures to further obscure their identity, such as using an anonymizing service,” he added.

In other words, for victims to actually find the users and get their photo taken down, they would have to compel the administrators — either by simply asking or by a subpoena — to hand over the IP addresses. The admins typically have no incentive to take the photo down because of a simple request, according to Snider, and taking legal action is lengthy and expensive.

VICE News attempted to contact Anon-IB’s administrators through an email address listed on the site but received no response. Law enforcement officials in the Seychelles and the Netherlands did not respond to requests for comment.

Read: Explicit photos of female service members are being shared in a Dropbox folder called “Hoes Hoin’”

Anon-IB first gained notoriety in 2014 for its involvement in the hacked nude photos of celebrities. Its forums host revenge porn of all kinds, and it’s had a section dedicated to nude photos of servicewomen at least since March 2017, when Business Insider first discovered the threads in the wake of Marines United. In January, the Daily Beast reported that several government-linked computers, including one in the Senate and others traced to military bases, were accessing the platform.

The often disparaging discussions about women on the Anon-IB threads remain largely unchanged from a year ago, but victim advocates say the solicitation of photos has become more brazen, more frequent, and more specific, despite Pentagon efforts to curb the behavior.

“You can go into a base’s folder and ask for specific people,” said Erin Kirk Cuomo, a Marine Corps veteran and founder of the advocacy group #NotinmyMarineCorps, which works to fight harassment. “Sometimes they share phone numbers,” she added. “It’s extremely scary.”

Photos of military women on the site are typically organized by base or by service. “Bama Guard, any wins?” one user asked. “Any wins from ‘The Great Place’? Another user posted next to a photo of the entrance to Fort Hood.

“Anyone have the ‘Hoes Hoin’ Dropbox link?” one user asked, referring to a since shut-down cache that contained hundreds of nude images of service members.

Like in other forums, users will sometimes post a photo of a woman in uniform side by side with an explicit photo, in an apparent attempt to identify her. Or they’ll post innocuous photos and ask if other users can share nude images of the woman in question.

“Anybody have any wins of this girl?” one user wrote next to a picture of a service member’s Instagram photo.

“You have any stories about her?” another asked about a different image.

Users also offer up photos in exchange for a particular mark. “I have a lot of AF chicks I can trade you,” wrote one user who was seeking a woman by name.

Because the photos are organized in such a granular manner — by base, by branch, by role, and even by name — users can easily identify the women.

The comments can be malicious. For example, when one user called another a snitch for suggesting he might tell a woman her photos appeared on the site, the accused responded: “You misunderstand me. I'm not being a white knight. In fact, the opposite. I want her to know she's online. I want her friends and family to know she's online. I want her to be shamed.”

Thirty-eight states and Washington, D.C., have enacted laws against revenge porn, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing to pass the ENOUGH Act, which would make revenge porn a federal crime in the U.S.

The Pentagon has repeatedly condemned nonconsensual photo sharing of service members and has issued wide-ranging policies against it. In December, Congress passed a bill that made sharing explicit photos without permission a criminal offense for service members. Seven Marines have faced courts-martial related to online misconduct since the Marines United scandal.

Yet despite the hundreds of photos of women in uniform shared on Anon-IB, the military has taken no legal action against the site. A spokesman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which has taken the lead on anti-cyberharassment efforts, said they found nothing that met the agency’s criminal threshold. The FBI declined to comment.

“It is difficult to stay on top of the various inappropriate social media sites, especially in identifying victims of cyberbullying and cyber harassment,” said Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “We encourage victims to come forward. Reporting not only allows us to hold offenders appropriately accountable, but it gives victims access to support services as well.”

Daniel Szalkiewicz, a New York attorney who works on internet defamation, said the military has been able to crack down on revenge porn shared online, but that the proliferating websites are hard to track.

“Once a case is referred, they really do go above and beyond to try and track down who is doing this,” Szalkiewicz said. “They do an extensive investigation. The bigger issue is that a lot of these websites are not actually known to the military.”

Perhaps knowing this, the Anon-IB users appear entirely uninhibited. When their accounts get deleted or links expire, they simply make new ones.

The users often ask each other for a “chord” link, which is lingo for Discord, an online chat platform traditionally for gamers that’s been used much more generically to disseminate content. Discord is invite-only, so the anonymous users can be even more untraceable when they access troves of photos dumped into the chatrooms on their phones or computers. They also send images through a file-sharing platform known as Volafile, which allows for invite-only chat rooms that don’t require users to enter a name or an email address to send files.

Eros Resmini, Discord’s chief marketing officer, told VICE News that nonconsensual photo sharing was against the company’s community standards and if identified would warrant an “instant shutdown” on the servers and a permanent ban on the users.

“Though we do not read people's private messages, we do investigate and take immediate action against any reported terms of service violation by a server or user,” Resmini said.

Representatives for Volafile did not respond to requests for comment.

In August, Bowden, of BADASS Army, started recruiting victims of revenge porn on Anon-IB in the hopes of filing a lawsuit against the platform. She has nearly 900 people interested so far, she said, and about 5 to 10 percent of the group has served or is serving in the military. They’ve partnered with #NotInMyMarineCorps, and Szalkiewicz plans to represent them.

“We want them to know that we’re coming for them,” Bowden said. “I would like to see some federal legislation passed. We are trying to attack it from every side.”

But to sue, they’ll have to identify the site’s owners first. In the meantime, and in the absence of an official across-the-board strategy to tackle anonymous explicit image-sharing, BADASS Army is resorting to DIY ways to help victims. They often send emails to the Anon-IB administrators asking them to take images down. They connect victims with lawyers.

Other times, they simply flood the threads with photos of Shrek, which at the very least, Bowden said, frustrates the moderators.