On a dark corner of the Internet, users on an anonymous website trade thousands of nude photographs of women.
The site, Anon-IB, is known as the dumping grounds for stolen nude photographs of celebrities in 2014, and most recently, of female Marines.
But a two-month long NBC 5 investigation found another disturbing trend: the soliciting, posting and trading of photos of what appear to be former high school students. NBC 5 Investigates discovered online threads listing at least 67 high schools in Illinois and the Chicago area, where users ask for women’s photos by name and graduating class. The threads go back to at least 2014.
“I feel angry. I feel violated and disgusted. It never crossed my mind that this could happen,” said one woman who found her photo on the site. She asked we conceal her identity and call her Jennifer.
Jennifer, 20, said she sent an intimate photo to a man she was interested in a few years ago. She said that relationship fizzled and she didn’t think twice about it, until she discovered her nude photo filed away on an Anon-IB thread bearing the logo of her alma mater, St. Charles North High School, along with her full name and graduating class.
“This is my life,” said Jennifer. “I’m a person. This isn’t a game.”
But for users on Anon-IB, it is a game, with women’s nude photos being called “wins” and derogatory comments common.
“(Anon-IB) is providing a venue for lives to be ruined and for this material to be posted,” said Dr. Holly Jacobs, founder and president of non-profit Cyber Civil Rights Initiative. “Bad actors are doing this. Bad actors are spreading this material.”
Anon-IB, which operates out of the country, has not responded to NBC 5 Investigates’ repeated requests for comment.
NBC 5 Investigates also contacted all 67 schools identified on the website. The handful of school administrators who responded all condemned the activity and encouraged former students to contact local police if their photos are posted.
“As a school and District we strive to educate our students and families about the hazards of sharing pictures and information electronically and the lasting impact of one’s digital footprint,” Kent Nightlinger, Principal of Lake Zurich High School, emailed in a statement.
Police: Sharing Nude Photos is a Growing Problem
Of all the concerns surrounding anonymous sites like Anon-IB, law enforcement officials say the most alarming is that some of the women pictured nude are younger than 18 years old.
“I know for a fact they’re underage,” according to Naperville detective Rich Wistocki, who says he investigated a case of child pornography on Anon-IB last summer. “A concerned dad wanted to make sure that (his daughter) was ready for medical school. He googles his daughter’s name, and his daughter’s name pops up in Anon-IB. He clicks on it and sees naked pictures of his daughter when she was (15 years old).”
Wistocki said the victim told him she sent the photos to boys she dated in high school.
Wistocki said he sent Anon-IB what’s called a preservation letter, notifying the moderators that their site was hosting child pornography. Anon-IB has a disclaimer on its site telling users that child porn is prohibited.
“(I told them) I verified it. Here’s my report number on this case. You need to take it down, and within two hours, it was down,” Wistocki said.
Anon-IB users’ identities are kept secret – their usernames are typically a string of numbers – however, Wistocki said the site does log the IP addresses of individuals, except those on a Tor network, which disguises the IP addresses.
In Wistocki’s case of child porn on Anon-IB last summer, he said “we were just comfortable taking (the photos) down and leaving (those who shared the photos) alone.”
Attorneys: Victims Have Little Legal Recourse
Anonymous sites like Anon-IB pose an obstacle for victims, according to advocates, because it places the burden on them to identify the perpetrators.
“The victims themselves have to bring charges against the perpetrators, and they can’t bring it against the site that’s hosting the images because those sites are protected by the Communications Decency Act,” said Dr. Jacobs, who created the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative after also becoming a victim of non-consensual porn.
The Communications Decency Act provides immunity to internet service providers and websites as long as they are not creating the content, according to legal experts.
Illinois has a strong revenge porn statute, which criminalizes the dissemination of an intimate photo without consent. But the law requires identification of the person sharing the images.
“Identifying who is the hardest part, so you have a hammer but you don’t really have a nail,” said Christopher Dore, partner at Edelson PC. “Just because you sent it to one person does not mean that was the person who is responsible for disseminating it. A lot of this goes to cyber security and data privacy.”
Dore said Anon-IB’s overseas operation also creates complications.
“Frankly the federal government would probably have to get involved,” Dore said.
Victim: Be Aware and Protect Yourself
Jennifer is in nursing school and just beginning her career.
“I may have made a mistake, but that doesn’t make me a bad person, that I have no morals,” Jennifer said. “It means that I gave trust where it was not deserved and I was taken advantage of.”
Jennifer said she wants other young women to know that her story is a real consequence of sharing intimate photos.
“Women shouldn’t be ashamed, and it doesn’t really matter how these guys are getting these pictures, in my opinion,” she said. “If these pictures are posted without girls’ permission, that is a violation of their trust and their privacy.”
Law enforcement officials said the only way to stop the proliferation of sites like Anon-IB, young men and women must be educated.
“The only thing we can do is arm our girls and guys not to be involved in something like this,” Wistocki said. “That’s someone’s child. That’s someone’s daughter.”
NBC 5 Investigates has decided to name and identify the website Anon-IB at the request of Jennifer and other victims. The women, as well as authorities, said they want the public to know sites like this exist and to take measures to protect themselves.