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Sextortion: Stalking Victims in the New Cyber Playground

In a new report, Benjamin Wittes, Cody Poplin, Quinta Jurecic and Clara Spera of the Brookings Institution discuss new research on “sextortion”—online, remote sexual assaults, sometimes over great distances, crossing international borders, or involving a great many victims.

Sextortion: Cybersecurity, teenagers, and remote sexual assault

We tend think of cybersecurity as a problem for governments, major corporations, and—at an individual level—for people with credit card numbers or identities to steal. The average teenage or young-adult Internet user, however, is the very softest of cybersecurity targets. Teenagers and young adults don’t use strong passwords or two-step verification, as a general rule. They often “sext” one another. They sometimes record pornographic or semipornographic images or videos of themselves. And they share material with other teenagers whose cyberdefense practices are even laxer than their own. Sextortion thus turns out to be quite easy to accomplish in a target-rich environment that often does not require more than malicious guile.

It is a great mistake, however, to confuse sextortion with consensual sexting or other online teenage flirtations. It is a crime of often unspeakable brutality. It is also a crime that, as we shall show, does not currently exist in either federal law or the laws of the states. As defined in the Mijangos court documents, sextortion is “a form of extortion and/or blackmail” wherein “the item or service requested/demanded is the performance of a sexual act.” The crime takes a number of different forms, and it gets prosecuted under a number of different statutes. Sometimes it involves hacking people’s computers to acquire images then used to extort more. More often, it involves manipulation and trickery on social media. But at the core of the crime always lies the intersection of cybersecurity and sexual coercion. For the first time in the history of the world, the global connectivity of the Internet means that you don’t have to be in the same country as someone to sexually menace that person.

The problem of this new sex crime of the digital age, fueled by ubiquitous Internet connections and webcams, is almost entirely unstudied. Law enforcement authorities are well aware of it. Brock Nicholson, head of Homeland Security Investigations in Atlanta, Georgia, recently said of online sextortion, “Predators used to stalk playgrounds. This is the new playground.”


Closing the sextortion sentencing gap: A legislative proposal

While prosecutors have many ways of getting at the crime of sextortion, the assortment of charges across various state and federal districts has so far produced disparate sentences with almost no clear association between prison time meted out and the egregiousness of the crime committed. The severity of the sentence in a sextortion case, according to the data we reviewed, is simply not directly related to either the number of victims or the depravity of the individual crime.

The dramatic disparities at issue in sextortion cases all have, we argue in this paper, either the same root cause or a common exacerbating factor: the absence of a federal sextortion statute. They also all have the same solution: Congress should pass a federal sextortion law, one incorporating elements already present in federal sexual abuse, extortion, child pornography, and abusive sexual contact statutes.

A federal sextortion law, we argue in this paper, is justified by the sheer volume of sextortion cases already being prosecuted in the federal system, the interstate and international character of many of the cases, and the disparate fashion in which these cases are handled, with respect both to each other and to cases prosecuted at the state level and cases involving physical assaults. Such a law would guarantee that sextortionists nationwide are subject to at least one single criminal statute, that weak state laws are backstopped by something stronger, and that the month to six-and-a-half years imprisonment, with a median sentence of only 40 months and a mean sentence of 38 months. That’s a difference of almost a factor of ten.


How does Child Pornography differ from Sexting, Sextortion, and Revenge Porn?


Sextortion Resources

Brookings Institution: Sextortion: Cybersecurity, teenagers, and remote sexual assault

Brookings Institution: Closing the sextortion sentencing gap: A legislative proposal

Federal Bureau of Investigation: Sextortion

Marsh Law Firm Video: How does Child Pornography differ from Sexting, Sextortion, and Revenge Porn?

What is Sextortion?

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