‘It feels like rape’: Hacked nude photos distributed as porn on messaging app
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'They stole my privacy and my body,' cancer survivor Orit

‘It feels like rape’: Hacked nude photos distributed as porn on messaging app

Israeli authorities fail to stem the growing number of female victims whose intimate photos are posted on Telegram without their consent, leaving women to fend for themselves

'My world came crashing down,' says one of the victims who found out that nude photos of her were posted on Telegram without her consent. (Illustration: iStock)
'My world came crashing down,' says one of the victims who found out that nude photos of her were posted on Telegram without her consent. (Illustration: iStock)

In November, Israel Police arrested 12 men on suspicion that they distributed thousands of intimate photos of Israeli women and girls, some of them minors, on sex groups hosted by the Telegram messaging app, without the women’s knowledge or consent.

The suspects, aged 17-30, were arrested at their homes following a months-long undercover investigation by the Lahav 433’s cyber crimes unit, according to a police statement.

But despite the crackdown, existing photos — as well as hundreds of new ones — are still popping up on Telegram sex groups, in what seems to be the handiwork of the suspects’ relatives and friends.

Created in 2013 by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, the web- and app-based messenger gained notoriety almost immediately: Telegram was one of the earliest systems to support end-to-end encryption, and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) were quick to exploit that to communicate with their operatives. In fact, Telegram was the preferred IS platform for almost four years.

Telegram insists that it regularly removes content related to IS and “does not tolerate any activity or campaigning that supports terrorism,” and that in 2019 it went to great lengths to shutter IS channels.

But as the messaging app grew more popular among regular users, so did the number of cases where user privacy was violated.

They took old photos that are sacred to me, and they distributed them in sex groups with my personal contact information

“[Hackers] took old photos of me, photos that are sacred to me, and they distributed them in sex groups with my personal contact information. They stole my privacy. They stole my body and [sense of] modesty. It feels like rape,” one of the victims, who asked to be called “Orit,” told Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.

Nine years ago, Orit was diagnosed with cancer. The intensive treatments she underwent included chemotherapy, periodic bone marrow treatments, and biological therapy. Fighting for her life, one of the things that helped her reconnect with her body and heal emotionally and psychologically was a photo shoot of an intimate nature.

“That was a dark time. The treatments made we weak, I was very skinny, and my fragile mental state triggered an outbreak of psoriasis, which projected onto my exterior. I was in a very lonely and dejected place. My body image was low and it affected my whole self-image. I realized that I had to do something to get it together again because treating the soul was just as important as the body,” she said.

Orit shared with her feelings with one of her close friends, a photographer who specializes in artistic nude photography. His portfolio “had beautiful, classic photographs of the female body. Those photos were respectful of the female form and there wasn’t any sexual connotation to them,” Orit said.

I was able to reconnect with my body and see my own beauty and femininity, even though I was scarred and emaciated. It was my way of expressing myself and it was really healing

Orit attended someone else’s photo shoot soon after that — “to see what it felt like” — and by the end of that day she had decided to have one done herself.

“Through that session, I was able to reconnect with my body and see my own beauty and femininity, even though I was scarred and emaciated. It was my way of expressing myself and it was really healing,” she said.

The website of the Telegram messaging app is seen on a computer screen in Moscow, Russia. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

Orit has since gone into remission and has been maintaining her health for the past three years. Two years ago she met her partner, and despite her doctors’ warnings, they decided to have a baby.

But Orit’s hard-earned happiness soon shattered when what proved to be her lifeline nearly a decade ago turned her life into a nightmare: Someone had found her nude photos and posted them on Telegram for thousands of strange men to see.

The news came courtesy of an unfamiliar Facebook profile. “There are naked photos of you on Telegram,” a text on the social media platform informed her, with some screenshots attached.

To make matters worse, Orit discovered that the photos on Telegram include a link to her Facebook profile, as well as her contact information. This led to a series of harassments by male strangers, who texted her on Facebook making lewd suggestions and derogatory comments.

I tried to get as much detail as possible from the man who contacted me, but he said [the photos] were posted on a group called Images and Videos, and disappeared

“My world came crashing down,” Orit said. “I felt confused and helpless. I tried to get as much detail as possible from the man who contacted me, but he said [the photos] were posted on a group called Images and Videos, and disappeared.”

“It is very difficult for me. It brought back a lot of memories and took me back to a dark time. But the hardest thing for me is the exposure and the fact that I can’t do anything about it. Even if the group removes the photos, they have already been shared on other groups; they’re online and men have taken screenshots of them and shared them again,” said Orit.

The thought that such intimate photos are out there, for all to see, haunts her, she said.

I would be walking down the street with my little boy and if a man looks at me or even pauses just for a second, I get anxious that he might recognize me from the photos

“I would be walking down the street with my little boy and if a man looks at me or even pauses just for a second, I get anxious that he might recognize me from the photos,” Orit said.

Since that fateful day when her privacy was so grossly violated, Orit has been trying to keep herself busy with things that lift her spirits.

“I try to focus on my family, my son, who is the light of my life, and my partner, who is the only one I told about this. I’m trying to move on. I’ve very lucky to have a supportive partner. At first I was ashamed, but eventually I told him all about it. After the initial shock, he said, ‘I love you, I’m with you, we’ll get through this together.’ He really helped me keep it together,” she said.

Orit’s partner changed the security and privacy settings of her social media accounts to prevent the algorithm from identifying and matching her photos with her personal information.

“I’ve pretty much gone off the social media grid, so at least the harassment stopped, which is a big relief. But anyone who knows me can still recognize me from the photos. I come from a conservative family and I worry that they might find out or that, heaven forbid, my dad will see them,” Orit said.

In the age of social media and hackers, there are many who would argue that if a woman takes nude photos, she has to at least consider the possibility that something like this could happen.

I had nude photos taken nine years ago — the awareness we have today didn’t exist back then

Orit disagrees. “I had nude photos taken nine years ago — the awareness we have today didn’t exist back then. I had that photo shoot done out of physical and mental distress and there was nothing sexual about it,” she said.

“It never occurred to me, not for one minute, that I would find myself in this situation, or that something like this — that my photos would be published without my knowledge or consent — could even happen,” she said.

As soon as she learned that her photos had been posted on Telegram, Orit contacted the company, reported the incident and demand the images be removed without delay. To date, over a month later, she has yet to hear back from anyone at Telegram.

She filed a complaint at her local police station over violation of privacy and sexual harassment.

Fending for themselves

The victims of the distribution of nude photos in Telegram groups include women of all ages and from all walks of life: Teenage girls who sent intimate videos to boyfriends who then distributed them, be it to brag or as so-called “revenge porn”; women who were unknowingly documented by partners; women recorded on security cameras or hidden cameras in changing and locker rooms; or women documented in a variety of other situations.

What they all have in common is that they were all stunned to learn that they have been exposed in online sex groups.

Some of the victimized women leveled harsh criticism at the police, who they said were not doing enough to fight this phenomenon. They feel that they have been left to fend for themselves, which is why they are independently trying to get their images removed from Telegram groups.

One of the victims, who asked to be called “Moran,” told Zman Yisrael that she conducted a comprehensive investigation of her own when she learned that nude photos of her were distributed online. She found that the photos were leaked by individuals affiliated with Telegrass.

The victims of the distribution of nude photos in Telegram groups include women of all ages and from all walks of life (Illustration: Flash 90)

Telegrass was an anonymous online marijuana marketplace that at its height had 500,000 users. It was brought down in August after its founder, Amos Dov Silver, was arrested in Ukraine and extradited to Israel. Forty-two other suspects were also arrested in connection to the platform’s operations.

“They refused to talk to me unless it was done through a secret chat. Everything there works with bots. My [photos], specifically, were posted on a bot used by a [political] party,” Moran said.

“They threatened me and said there was no point in filing a police complaint because they [the police] weren’t going to do anything about it. Eventually, they agreed to remove my photos from some of the groups,” she said.

‘These men are pathetic’

The photographer who took Orit’s pictures, who asked to remain anonymous, said that images of other women, some of whom were professional models with whom he worked regularly, were also posted on Telegram.

“These are women who said in advance exactly what they wanted to do with the photos, which were taken in accordance with all the rights they are afforded under the law,” he said.

“These are wonderful women whom I respect and admire, and a pathetic group of men — if they can even be called that — have made them into porn stars, without their knowledge and against their will. As a man, I’m ashamed,” the photographer said.

Still, the photographer insists that he has no idea how these individuals could have gotten their hands on the photos.

“It’s still unclear to me how it happened. From what I understand they might have hacked my cloud account or a photographers’ group I’m a member of, and took the photos from there. It’s being investigated,” he said.

A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.

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