Centre for Internet & Society

Revenge porn is sweeping across the developed world. And now it's being seen in India. The culprit, says Prasun Chaudhuri, is often a former friend, partner, relative or colleague.

This article by Prasun Chaudhuri with additional reporting by Varuna Verma in Bangalore was published in the Telegraph on August 3, 2014. Rohini Lakshane gave her inputs.

How would you feel if you casually opened a mail and found the link to a pornographic site — and it turned out to contain pictures of yourself naked? That's what Kalpana did. She clicked on a link sent to her and, to her horror, found that the face of the girl who "was available for sex" was hers. Her stomach lurched when she saw that the pictures showed her own bedroom. The site also contained her personal and contact details.

Kalpana was shattered. The subject line of the mail had said "I'm going to ruin you, dear". It had seemed like a prank. Only, it wasn't. It was a very real and malevolent attempt to destroy her reputation.

The 24-year-old Mumbai-based bank executive had become a victim of revenge porn — a new form of cybercrime in which ex-lovers or boyfriends upload intimate photos and videos of their former partners for the world to see. Mostly, the sexually explicit pictures are of women posted by jilted or spurned men.

Kalpana's photos, it was later found, were posted by her recently divorced husband, Pranay. They were taken when the two lived together.

Revenge porn is a trend sweeping across the developed world — from the US and Japan to countries in Europe. And now it's being seen in India, fuelled by the growing access to the Internet and camera-wielding mobile phones — all that is needed for taking and posting offensive pictures.

"Now that you have gadgets you tend to capture every moment of your life in pictures or videos," Calcutta-based psychiatrist J.R. Ram points out. "Not only that, you want to share these images through networking apps in your mobile phone or the Internet — without ever thinking of the consequences."

National Crimes Record Bureau (NCRB) figures — released on July 1, 2014 — show a 63.7 per cent rise in cyber offences from 2012 to 2013. During this period, the category "transmission of obscene content in electronic form" reflects a quantum jump —104.2 per cent — with 1,203 cases registered and 737 people arrested. "The data show cyber offences against women have increased sharply," NCRB director-general R.R. Verma says. "But we do not have any specific data on revenge crimes."

More and more such cases, however, are now coming to light. Kalpana lodged a complaint with the Navgarh police station in Mumbai. Ashish was arrested under a number of sections of the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act.

Sneha, a 22-year-old college student from Udupi in Karnataka, also went to the police with the complaint that her ex-boyfriend had put up her photographs and videos on the Internet. M.B. Boralingaiah, superintendent of police, Manipal district, says the boy was arrested and sent to judicial custody.

"There has been an exponential rise in the number of cases of cyber revenge being reported to the police," Boralingaiah says. "This could also be because of increasing awareness of cyber laws, which prompts more people to approach the police." The Karnataka police are now setting up cyber crime police stations at regional levels across the state. Currently, only one police station, in Bangalore, deals with such crimes.

The profile of the criminal in revenge porn, Boralingaiah adds, is different from that of the average criminal plotting a scam using the Internet. In all the cases that have been reported, the accused is a former friend, partner, relative or colleague with no criminal history. They are also educated, intelligent and technologically savvy.

And that is why, despite suspicions, it is not always easy to catch the offender. The police say they have to first track down the origin of the pornographic site where the pictures are posted. "When we receive a complaint we try to locate the IP address (the unique identifier for the computer)," says Siddhartha Chakraborty, in charge of Cyber Police Station, Lalbazar, Calcutta. "But these crooks are clever enough to use some fake IP address of a distant country."

Once the police zero in on the IP address, it asks the web hosts to remove the offensive images, which they normally do. "But the procedure can take weeks or even months," Chakraborty adds.

Debarati Halder, a lawyer and cyber victim counsellor based at Tirunelvelli, Tamil Nadu, says she comes across 10-15 cases of revenge porn every month across the country, mostly involving college students. Often, the victims themselves take pictures while taking a shower or in their inner wear and share them with their boyfriends.

Many young women, Halder says, see such acts as symbols of independence or defiance.

"Taking 'sexy' images of themselves offers them a false sense of liberty, bypassing the repression imposed upon them in the real world," she says. "They feel relatively uninhibited in cyberspace and tend to experiment with their looks and sexuality, but are unable to determine where to draw the line."

The young are not greatly concerned with privacy and security on the Internet, Canada-based Internet safety expert Terry Cutler stresses. "They don't understand that once you send out an inappropriate photo or video, you no longer control it."

There are, according to some estimates, at least 3,000 voyeuristic websites where such pictures can be posted. The visuals are often copied and replicated across multiple porn sites, making it virtually impossible for the authorities to wipe off the digital prints. "Often these clips are available on mirror sites, web archives and caches. Video footage can also go viral on social networks and porn buffs even share these images offline," Chakraborty warns.

But people seldom think that the intimate pictures that they shoot with their lovers may one day become public. "When you're in love you trust your partner. You don't expect him to use these pictures to humiliate you when things fall apart," says Antara, a 32-year-old IT analyst in a government agency who has been a victim of revenge porn. She says that her husband, to seek a quick divorce, uploaded intimate pictures on porn sites to show that she was a woman of "bad character".

Also worrying is that a large number of women are victims of non-consensual and amateur pornography. Abir Atarthy, a Calcutta-based cyber-security expert, recently solved a case in which a college student found her pictures, shot in her bedroom, circulating on a social networking site.

"She was shocked because she not taken those pictures, nor had anybody else," Atarthy says. A thorough check revealed that a boy whose advances she had spurned had installed a hidden spy program in her laptop. "The program — capable of switching on the webcam even if the machine was offline — had been taking her snaps from her private life and sending the visuals to the youth whenever she connected to the Internet," he says.

Rohini Lakshané, a researcher at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, describes such non-consensual acts as sexually violent crimes. "I don't like to use the term 'revenge porn', for it's an act of violence against women," she says. "Sometimes women are even raped and coerced into sex, filmed, threatened and blackmailed over the release of the footage online," Lakshané says.

The intention is to humiliate the woman and make her life miserable is the equivalent of throwing acid on her face, holds Dr Subhrangshu Aditya, a student counsellor at Jadavpur University, Calcutta. "These men can't accept rejection and it's their way to settle scores."

The victim, the experts say, doesn't just feel betrayed but often falls into depression — not just because of the ex-partner's action but because she sees herself as a partner in the crime, for the pictures uploaded may have been shot with her consent. "Their guardians also blame her for this and avoid reporting the matter to the police apprehending a bigger scandal," Halder adds.

The lawyer urges victims of such crimes to always approach the police. "Indian women have a strong legal recourse against perpetrators of revenge porn," she says. The amended 354 [C] of the Criminal Law (Amended) Act 2013, also known as the "voyeurism section", criminalises capturing and sharing images of a woman in private space. Section 66(E) of the IT Act criminalises the publication and transmission of images of an individual's private parts without his or her consent.

"These are watertight laws, strong enough to book an offender," she says, adding that the law also protects a victim's identity.

Across the world, laws are now being framed to punish cyber porn offenders. In January, Israel voted to define posting of images without consent as sexual harassment, punishable by up to five years in jail. Many states in the US already have laws against revenge porn and Britain may bring in one soon.

But perhaps the best way to prevent such crimes is by safeguarding privacy — at home and in the virtual world (see box). Cyber security expert Cutler sums it up aptly: "Just think this before you click the send button: If I were to post the visual on the Internet, would I care if it landed on the front page of a newspaper or the 8pm news?"

Some names have been changed to protect identities

How to Safeguard Your Privacy?

  • Get acquainted with the privacy settings of the social networks, dating and matrimonial websites you use
  • Do not upload any single close-shot picture on the Internet; this can be morphed and misused
  • Never film yourself during sexually intimate acts; even if you delete the pictures and videos these can be recovered from your device
  • Watch out for weird webcam activity; malicious software can easily infect your computer or phone and control the webcam
  • Remove your memory card from your mobile or format the hard disc of your computer before giving the device to service centres
  • Don't give your device to others and always lock your applications (especially picture galleries) in your mobile
  • Install and update antivirus and antimalware in your device