A Turning Point for Sextortion

Jeff Bezos’s public stand might help more vulnerable victims.

Jeff Bezos
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

On the evening of February 7, Jeff Bezos announced that he had been sextorted.

The Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner didn’t use the term in his bombshell Medium post, in which he accused the National Enquirer and its parent company, American Media Inc., of blackmailing him with “intimate photos” that he had taken of himself. As Bezos describes it, AMI threatened to publish the photos if Bezos failed to make a public statement that he had “no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

It’s not clear what entity AMI worried would make that statement—Bezos or the Post—and it’s even less clear precisely what information was at risk of being made public. But despite these missing details, the outlines of Bezos’s predicament fit a pattern that has become unfortunately recognizable over the past few years.

“Sextortion,” as it’s come to be known within federal law-enforcement agencies, describes a situation in which the perpetrator somehow obtains sexual material concerning the victim, usually over the internet, and uses that material for extortion. The most common demands are for money or further sexual material: photos, video, and forced sexually explicit performances over Skype. The initial image or video is often obtained through hacking the victim’s computer, either to steal preexisting material or to use a webcam to take surreptitious photos, or tricking the victim into sharing intimate content.

As a portmanteau, “sextortion” is clunky and eyebrow-raising. But the cases it describes are not funny at all. Those who suffer are often young. Some commit suicide. Bezos is everything the typical victim is not: influential, wealthy, and capable of making the choice not to be embarrassed with relative ease.

Sextortion is both understudied and surprisingly common. It is a form of virtual sexual assault. The activity it describes is not criminalized under any one federal statute; instead, cases tend to be prosecuted under a grab bag of charges, including stalking, hacking, and in cases with victims younger than 18, child pornography. The law criminalizing interstate extortion, 18 USC § 875, is one of the most common statutes used against sextortion defendants—and the statute under which AMI might face liability in the Bezos case, though former prosecutors disagree on whether the company could actually be in jeopardy.

Because no single statute covers all sextortion cases, the Justice Department keeps no data on the matter, even as the FBI has repeatedly sought to raise awareness about the problem. To my knowledge, only one attempt has been made to create a database of sextortion cases: Benjamin Wittes and I created it in 2016 along with Cody Poplin and Clara Spera, in connection with a Brookings Institution report on the subject. Focusing just on instances of blackmail for further sexual material, we found 78 cases that had been prosecuted in both state and federal court. Because hacking allows some perpetrators to target hundreds or even thousands of people for sexual violence, a conservative estimate put the numbers of victims affected in the cases we identified at around 3,000. That’s only in cases that were prosecuted and which we could identify through searching public databases.

The abuse can be brutal. Sometimes perpetrators threaten to hurt or kill loved ones. They send intimate material to people whom the victims most want not to see it, such as parents and work colleagues. Victims often describe feeling powerless, comparing the experience to rape. The mother of one victim described her daughter as constantly uncomfortable when she stepped out onto the street, unable to stop wondering whether the people she walked past had seen her naked.

Some of these harms are specific to sextortion, but others are shared across the universe of what my colleague Danielle Citron describes as invasions of sexual privacy, meaning interference with “personal decisions about intimate life”—including whom to share one’s nude body with and how one’s sexuality is revealed to others. Along with sextortion, she points to nonconsensual pornography, also known as revenge porn—the sharing of intimate images without the featured person’s consent, absent the blackmailing aspect of sextortion—and deep fakes, video realistically manipulated to display a victim’s face on the body of a pornographic actor.

Much distinguishes Bezos’s case from the average instance of sextortion, besides the identity of the man himself and the power he possesses. AMI demanded a public statement, rather than money or explicit images; AMI is a publisher, not an individual bad actor or a network of bad actors. The malignance of sextortion, as I’ve described it, depends upon modern technology: While Bezos’s webcam wasn’t hacked, AMI’s gambit was enabled by his use of the ubiquitous smartphone camera to engage in the near-ubiquitous practice of sexting (spurring some online sleuthing as to what phone he might have been using and whether it was vulnerable to hacking).

But much about it is not new. The practice of sexual blackmail stretches back at least as far as the 19th century. As Lawrence Friedman writes in Guarding Life’s Dark Secrets, Victorian norms of propriety ensured the success of the practice—and the United States has not moved that far away from those cultural attitudes. Bezos’s Medium post has more than a whiff of the Duke of Wellington’s supposed 1824 admonishment to a publisher threatening to release the memoir of a former mistress: “Publish and be damned.”

The boundaries of what constitutes sextortion, and what harms are truly novel, may be fuzzy. However it’s defined, though, AMI’s effort to extort Bezos is a violation of sexual privacy as Citron describes it.

Like the Duke of Wellington, Bezos’s stature is such that he is both particularly vulnerable to blackmail and particularly resistant to it. He’s well known enough that he has a reputation to ruin, but powerful enough to extract himself from under the thumb of any threat. (Wellington, for his part, went on to become the prime minister after the scandalous memoir was published.) There’s something quixotic about AMI’s attempt to blackmail a person with such power. In a crowning absurdity, the National Enquirer’s website appears to run on Amazon Web Services.

“Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat,” Bezos wrote in his Medium post, “because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?” By the terms of his own post, he was writing about other people who had been extorted by AMI. But it is also true of sextortion victims, many of whom feel they have no choice but to accede to their blackmailers’ demands.

Bezos has functionally unlimited resources with which to respond to AMI’s sextortion. He hired Gavin de Becker, a prominent security consultant, to dig into the threat from AMI “with whatever budget he needed.” He has 846,000 Twitter followers with whom he could share his story and instantly transform it into headline news. If AMI followed through with its threat to publish the photos, he would still wake up the next morning as the richest man in the world.

Other sextortion victims, in contrast, are far more vulnerable. Many are young: In our 2016 Brookings study, 71 percent of the cases we examined involved only victims under the age of 18. While most adult victims were female, a significant proportion of minor victims were young boys, many of whom thought they were communicating with other boys innocently sexually interested in them. Both boys and girls are often just beginning to understand and explore their sexuality. They are ashamed of what their parents and classmates might find out. One girl, already teased at her middle school, described being terrified that the publication of these photos would unleash even crueler bullying. In a 2017 study by the activist group Thorn, one in three victims surveyed said they had never shared what happened to them with anyone, and only 17 percent of victims went to law enforcement. Even when victims go the police, local law enforcement often has no idea how to handle the problem. There is a risk that photos will linger online and follow victims for the rest of their life.

Bezos’s insistence on demonstrating that one can “stand up to this kind of extortion” expresses a real insight. Sextortion is brutal and isolating, with many victims unaware of how common the abuse can be. For the richest man in the world to acknowledge that this has affected him, too, has expressive power, both in assuring victims that they are not alone and, hopefully, in drawing attention to the problem.

At the same time, sextortion is often successful precisely because victims lack Bezos’s resources. For most, allowing someone to release their nude materials means deep emotional suffering and embarrassment (which Bezos surely has endured) and harm to reputation and job opportunities (which Bezos does not have to fret about). This is an area ripe for legal reform: Most states have now criminalized nonconsensual pornography, but other invasions of sexual privacy, such as deep-fake sex videos and up-skirt photos, don’t fit easily into the existing criminal or civil code. Legislation introduced in Congress to criminalize sextortion has gone nowhere.

A consistent refrain among sextortionists is that the abuse is less about sex than power. Michael C. Ford, who attempted to blackmail hundreds of young women for sexual images, told investigators that he wanted to feel “big” and “important”; he engaged in sextortion, he said, to fill the “power void” created by his wife’s role as “alpha and breadwinner.” The Bezos story is also about power: the wealth of the Amazon CEO against AMI’s effort to leverage its ability to put Bezos’s indiscretions on tabloid covers in grocery stores across America.

The greater political context of the story, too, unavoidably places it in the midst of crosscurrents of power on an international scale. Bezos has drawn President Donald Trump’s ire for his ownership of The Washington Post; AMI is currently bound by a nonprosecution agreement with federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York in relation to the investigation into the tabloid’s role in helping silence at least one woman with an unflattering story to tell about Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. Throughout his Medium post, Bezos hints that AMI’s displeasure with him might have something to do with the company’s alleged links to the Saudi government and the Post’s investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

All this is tantalizing. It might even turn out to be important. But the value of the moment will be lost, at least in part, if the conversation around Bezos doesn’t focus on what his actions, and the kind of abuse he stood up against, mean for those more vulnerable than he.