A link to the photos arrived while Talia was cleaning her university bedroom one afternoon in late April.
I saw this and I wanted you to know, her best friend wrote in an accompanying text.
Talia, 22, was in shock to see several partially nude photos of herself as she scrolled through a simply designed website. Next to the images appeared her name. (Talia is a pseudonym we’ve given her to protect her identity.)
As she delved further into the site, Talia saw startling messages that appeared to have a language of their own. “Bump [redacted] and her slut friends,” one user wrote. “More WINS less requests. Start posting shit, boys,” demanded another. She didn’t know what “bump” or “wins” referred to, but after seeing photos of women in underwear and some fully nude, she grew increasingly alarmed. As she clicked through, Talia recognized the names of her female classmates in a thread dedicated to sexual images of women who attend St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS. It’s a small campus, after all.
Talia soon realized that a number of users were specifically requesting photos of her. Some were even offering money for pics of other women on campus.
The women were being traded like baseball cards. Paralyzed with panic, Talia sat on her bed for an hour, unable to move. Why me? she thought. Talia had no idea who got her photos in the first place—or who had them now.
She stood up and headed to the campus library. She didn’t know what to do, but she needed to get out of her room.
Two anxiety-filled days later, Talia went back on the site and saw that new requests had been made—this time, someone wanted nude shots of her friend. Sickened at the thought those closest to her were also being targeted, Talia went to the police. She had to stop this.
Revenge porn: AnonIB lets people trade and sell explicit photos
What happened to Talia is happening to women in cities and university campuses across the world. On AnonIB, a site styled after image-based bulletin board 4chan, anonymous users are uploading, trading and selling explicit images of women without their consent. It’s known as “Best Anonymous Image Board” and it contains hubs with names like “accidental nude,” “anal,” “ass,” “Azn Chikz,” “Random,” “BDSM,” “BIG TITS,” “College Bitches” and “Creepshots/Candid.” Like 4chan, AnonIB has subject-based threads that group conversations and images together—similar to an email reply chain. Women are commonly referred to as “sluts” and “whores” on the site. “She should get into porn or make a sex tape. I’d f-cking watch that shit every day,” wrote one user in response to a photo.
The site has threads for a number of Canadian universities and colleges, including McMaster University, St. Francis Xavier University, University of Guelph, Trent University, Humber College, Carleton University, York University, Acadia University and University of Toronto. Apart from universities, there are threads for Canadian cities and even high schools—meaning there may be images of underaged girls. A whole section on the site is dedicated to women who appear to have passed out at parties. There are threads for cities in the U.K., Mexico, Australia, Italy and high schools in the U.S.—of which the latter was the subject of a recent NBC 5 Chicago investigation.
To put it simply, AnonIB is not a pretty place.
Sometimes, nude images are posted directly to a thread, meaning anyone on the site can see them. Other times, photos of women are requested—either by name or by posting an innocuous photo screen-grabbed from Facebook or Instagram. For example, if a user is looking for nude photos of “Jessica Smith from York University,” they would upload a photo taken from any of her social media accounts, post it to the university thread, and ask if any other users have sexual photos of her—“wins,” as they’re called. If a girl is in high demand, people comment with the word “bump” (a.k.a. bring up my post) to draw more attention to their request. When users want to share or trade the pornographic images they’ve collected, they’ll upload them onto a closed file-sharing site that’s similar to Dropbox, called Volafile.
Volafile is a German-based company that runs a global chatroom and online storage site. Files uploaded to Volafile disappear off the site after two days, unlike most file-sharing sites. It doesn’t typically store any identifying information, like IP addresses, after the files vanish. To make sure only the intended viewers are accessing the photos, images are uploaded to private rooms that require specific entry links, which are often posted on AnonIB threads. Those who are dumping or dropping—terms used to describe uploading images—often let users know when the images will be available in Volafile. Users need to be active on AnonIB or they’ll miss the 48-hour downloading window.
AnonIB was created in 2006 as a 4chan offshoot, and has been targeted by the FBI after child pornography and other illegal activity became rampant on the site. It’s believed to be the original source of the leaked celebrity nudes (including those of Jennifer Lawrence) that went viral in 2014. Shortly afterward, the site shut down for two weeks of “scheduled maintenance” before its anonymous staff transferred it to an overseas server.
This March, American journalist Thomas James Brennan published an investigation that revealed U.S. Marines were sharing hundreds of sexually explicit images of their female colleagues—ranging from nude photos to images of them engaging in sexual acts—on a private, men-only Facebook group called “Marines United.” After the group was uncovered, another investigation by Business Insider reported that photos of female Marines were also being shared on AnonIB.
Unlike most legitimate porn sites—where people consensually perform sexual acts or pose for photographs—AnonIB is based around trading photos of women without consent. In most cases, users know the women. Some of AnonIB’s activity can be categorized as revenge porn, where bitter ex-partners upload private photos shared during the relationship, but the requesting, trading and selling of these photos enters a new, dark territory—all of which is illegal.
Revenge porn and the law? It’s complicated
“It’s now a crime in Canada to non-consensually distribute an intimate image of someone,” says Jane Bailey, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in cyber-violence and sexting. Bailey is referring to Bill C-13, an amendment to the criminal code, which became law in 2015 following the death of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons—a Nova Scotia teen who attempted to hang herself and later died in hospital after images of her allegedly being sexually assaulted by a group of boys made the rounds at her high school.
One of the first people to be sentenced under Bill C-13 was a 29-year-old Winnipeg man who posted nude photos of his ex-girlfriend on Facebook without her consent; he got 90 days in prison after the March 2016 ruling. Six months later, six Nova Scotia teens were charged in August 2016 for non-consensually distributing intimate images of more than 20 girls on Dropbox.
These recent convictions beg the question: if AnonIB is a site filled with similar activity, what are police doing to stop it?
In Talia’s case, she says she first reported the naked photos at an RCMP station in Antigonish, a few days after she first clicked the link. She learned that the site’s URL was being distributed among her classmates, and she was worried about the requests for more explicit photos of herself and her friends.
“I knew some part of it was a crime, but I didn’t know how much of it,” Talia says. “The officer was shocked. It was as if he didn’t know how to react and didn’t know what to do.” Talia said the RCMP officer told her the likelihood of finding out who was behind the crime was slim, but said he would get tech crimes—the division of the RCMP that investigates illegal activity done through computers—involved.
“It felt as though it was kind of a ‘Oopsies, this happened. We can’t do anything,’” she says of her initial interaction with the officer. “It was very, ‘Well, you put them out there—whether it was by accident or on purpose—what do you want me to do?’ That’s how it came across.”
Talia suspects the photos were taken from her personal VSCO account—an image editing app that uses a photo grid similar to Instagram. “I had no intention of having them go any further than that,” says Talia. “My belief is that they were screenshotted off VSCO and then put on this website.”
Another victim of AnonIB had a similar experience. Brittany, a 21-year-old Canadian university student who wishes to keep her identity and school anonymous, intended to keep a partially nude photo she’d taken to herself. By accident, she posted the selfie on her public VSCO grid. “I just meant to edit it, and so I deleted it the day after I realized it was posted.” Within that short time frame, she believes someone took a screenshot and saved the image. Soon it was shared alongside her name on AnonIB. Brittany also found another photo of herself on the site—this time, she was fully dressed at a party showing a bit of cleavage. Brittany never took the second photo; her friend at the party did. It only appeared on her friend’s Snapchat account, but Brittany believes someone took a screenshot of it and then posted it on AnonIB. To this day, Brittany has no idea who stole either of the photos. She reported the incident to police, but no charges have been laid.
Several months after her photos were stolen, Brittany still feels the effects of AnonIB. “I walk into a room now and I look at the guys and wonder, ‘Are you one of the ones who is asking for my photo, or posting my photo, or trading me?’” Brittany says. “I feel like guys look at women like playing cards instead of humans now. It’s hard because when one guy does something to you, you know who to blame. But with this, I have no idea—and they’re people who know me.”
How authorities deal with revenge porn
After Talia spoke with the police at the RCMP office in Antigonish, she says someone close to her reported what happened to the university. Several days later, Talia was contacted by St. FX, and says she was asked to make a formal statement on campus to a different RCMP officer.
“They said they were looking into it,” Talia says. About six or so weeks later, on June 5, Talia says she got a call from the RCMP updating her on the case, but to date there has been no confirmation of any possible charges. Since the initial complaint to the university, Talia says she still hasn’t heard anything from her school. Regardless of the current state of the RCMP’s investigation, of which Talia is still unclear about ongoing details, the university hasn’t made any formal statement about AnonIB. That means there has been no warning to students about the risks of uploading or sharing any non-consensual photos—and there’s been no threat of punishment for the perpetrators.
FLARE reached out to the Nova Scotia RCMP after we heard about Talia’s story. The RCMP confirmed they are aware of Talia’s case, and said the file is still under investigation. They were unable to provide additional comment due to privacy concerns.
We also reached out to St. FX. “We became aware of this in April,” wrote Cindy MacKenzie, the manager of media relations at St. FX University, in an email. “Student Services provided support for students and university officials advised the RCMP of the site.”
When FLARE requested an interview to find out what kind of support was provided, MacKenzie replied that the school had “nothing further to contribute at this time.”
So now what?
If you find yourself on a site like AnonIB, there are things you can do to help your case when you report it to police, says sexual educator and feminist activist Julie Lalonde. “Always bring someone with you who’s an advocate. You do have the right to bring someone,” she says.
“Try to have as many of your ducks in a row as possible, so document what you know: when [and if] you sent the photo; when you noticed it appeared in other places; where you noticed it; and if you can, take screen grabs and print those. Show up with your homework in that sense.”
While gathering information is crucial, it’s also important to remember that it is a crime in Canada to share intimate images of someone without their consent. That said, even with Bill C-13 in place to protect people, educators like Lalonde and Jane Bailey believe the issue won’t truly be resolved until the way women are viewed and treated changes.
“Photos of naked women have currency; they have value in a way that naked photos of a man generally do not,” says Lalonde.
If someone steals an image or convinces a woman to share an intimate photo with him, it’s an act of control, says Lalonde. “There’s power in it. It’s like I convinced her to give me a photo, and now I have it. If a young man feels like he has no game, or trouble dating, then possessing that photo is like, ‘Well, screw you, woman, because now I have power over you,’ right?” says Lalonde.
To bring back control to the women victimized by AnonIB, Brittany hopes that universities will implement policies that target those who are participating in this illegal behaviour.
“I think there needs to be serious consequences for people who are doing it. Police and universities need to take action and take this seriously, because I know it’s happening across Canada,” she says.
“And they’ve got to stop blaming us for it. Find out who is doing this, and who is making victims out of all these girls.”
FLARE will continue to follow this story as it unfolds. If you’ve found yourself on the site and would like to share your story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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