Guidance Will Help New Yorkers Protect Privacy of Intimate Online Conversations

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James today issued an alert to warn New Yorkers about potential invasions of privacy while they are engaged in intimate online or mobile conversations with their partners. As New Yorkers practice social distancing in response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) public health crisis, an increased number of individuals are engaging in intimate conversations with distanced partners with webcams and video chat apps, or are meeting new partners online and dating virtually. Unfortunately, some users have chosen to take screenshots or recordings of their partners without their knowledge or consent and are then threatening disclosure of these intimate images — an act commonly referred to as “revenge porn” — sometimes even forcing partners to comply with certain demands.

Revenge porn was already a widespread problem prior to COVID-19, but recent reports suggest the abuse has increased dramatically as the pandemic has increased the amount of time people spend on social media sites and has led people to use technology more often to communicate. Such reports note that abuses overwhelmingly affect women, who make up 90 percent of revenge porn victims.

“Revenge porn is a vicious form of humiliation and control that disproportionately affects women, and we will continue to fight this cruel form of degradation in New York state,” said Attorney General James. “As New Yorkers continue to social distance during the coronavirus pandemic, we urge all who are sharing intimate and private pictures to follow these tips to protect themselves. We also warn anyone thinking of sharing revenge porn and exploiting their partners to think twice, as we will work with local law enforcement to prosecute all individuals engaging in the illegal act to the fullest extent of the law.”

Since New York, and much of the country, issued stay-at-home orders in March, many dating sites have seen a significant increase in the number of messages sent, and some video chat apps have reported an increase in usage of over 70 percent across platforms. This increase in video chats has come with an increase in intimate images shared as well. While these images may be intended for just a single partner, too often that person may take a screenshot or record the images by using a second device.

Attorney General James released the following tips to help protect New Yorkers from invasions of privacy and minimize the risks of falling victim to revenge porn:

  • Do not include identifying details in any intimate image or chat:
    • Exclude your face and any identifying features, such as a unique tattoo or birthmark, in intimate images. Some users can keep their face off-screen in such images, while others can utilize a blurring or cropping feature.
    • Exclude identifiable information in your image’s background, including anything with your name or your employer’s name or logo on it.
    • Exclude identifiable information from your profile, such as your email address or the handles to different social media accounts. Some users even create separate email addresses or social media accounts to use only with dating profiles.
  • Use dating apps or websites that have safety features. While these features cannot prevent a recipient from recording the screen with a second device, they do offer some protection, including:
    • Providing warnings that notify you if a recipient has taken a screenshot of an image you shared or of your chat history.
    • An “unsend” option for pictures or messages.
    • The ability to delete images or chats from a recipient’s messages.

To discover which apps or websites have these or other safety features, consumers should browse the features list in an app store or on the website of the dating service offering the app. Consumers should note that some of these apps and sites charge separate fees for these safety features. Because features change over time, consumers should continue to review safety features lists for the most up-to-date information.

Last year, the New York state legislature passed and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed S.1719C/A.5981 into law, which created Penal Law § 245.15 that criminalized the publication or dissemination of revenge porn. The law establishes criminal penalties of up to a year in jail and civil damages for abusers, and empowers victims to seek a court order to remove these images online. Attorney General James and the Office of the Attorney General consulted in the creation of this law. New Yorkers who believe they have been a victim of unlawful surveillance or unlawful dissemination of an intimate image can report this crime by calling 911 or contacting a local police station or precinct. 

There are also several service organizations that provide assistance to survivors of violence or who have been threatened by intimate partners. Sanctuary for Families is one of largest service providers in New York providing support to survivors of intimate partner violence. During the COVID-19 crisis, Sanctuary for Families is continuing to offer support to survivors, including assisting survivors in obtaining orders of protection through the virtual family courts. Survivors can access this service, and more, by contacting Sanctuary for Family’s free legal helpline at 212-349-6009, ext. 246.

“Shelter-in-place orders have meant more time at home, more time online, and, unfortunately, more instances of abuse by way of technology, including cyber sexual abuse,” said the Honorable Judy Harris Kluger, executive director of Sanctuary for Families. “These are extremely dangerous and isolating times for anyone experiencing gender-based violence. Especially during COVID-19, it is critical that all are able to safely navigate this ever-expanding virtual world. Sanctuary joins Attorney General Letitia James and her office in urging New Yorkers to learn how they can minimize the potential for digital violence and how victims of cyber abuse can get help.”

Safe Horizon Domestic Violence Law Project (DVLP) is another organization providing support to New Yorkers who have fallen victim to violence. DVLP provides legal services to survivors of intimate partner violence throughout New York City in matters involving orders of protection, child custody, visitation, divorce, and child support. DVLP is available to provide telephone legal consultations via their hotline at 718-834-7430, ext. 1101.

“As many of us have learned in 2020, our computers and mobile devices have become essential tools for navigating both on and offline relationships,” said Stella K. Hirsch, a staff attorney at Safe Horizon. “While we recognize the significance of establishing and sustaining connections through digital communications at the Domestic Violence Law Project, we also understand that harms threatened or perpetrated in online spaces have a real and lasting impact on survivors. The exponential rise we have seen in revenge porn and other forms of online harassment during the COVID-19 pandemic are saddening and have increased demand for our services. We thank Attorney General James for issuing this alert and will continue to work with her office to protect New Yorkers from online abuse in all forms.”

This matter was handled by Assistant Attorney General Kristen Bitetto of the Criminal Enforcement and Financial Crimes (CEFC) Bureau and Assistant Attorney General Noah Stein of the Bureau of Internet and Technology (BIT). CEFC is overseen by Bureau Chief Stephanie Swenton and Deputy Bureau Chief Joseph D’Arrigo and is a part of the Division for Criminal Justice, which is overseen by Chief Deputy Attorney General Jose Maldonado. BIT is overseen by Bureau Chief Kim Berger and Deputy Bureau Chief Clark Russell and is a part of the Division for Economic Justice, which is overseen by Chief Deputy Attorney General Chris D’Angelo. First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy oversees both the Division for Criminal Justice and the Division for Economic Justice.

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