NEW DELHI — A. was 17 years old when she found her nude photographs on an alphabetized Google Drive.
There were hundreds of clickable folders in the directory of women’s names, each filled with dozens of images. Some were clothed, several were naked, most of them were stolen.
Seeing herself in the Google Drive changed A.’s life. “I realized that while I was isolated, I was not alone.”
In Pakistan, where A. grew up and still lives, her story could be seen as a cautionary tale, warning girls not to date before marriage, preen before cameras, or trust men who are not their family.
“I realized that while I was isolated, I was not alone.”
But A. said discovering her nude photos drove her in the opposite direction. Instead of being fearful, she wanted to reach out to other women affected by image-based sexual abuse.
A. wanted to become one of the only Pakistani women to speak openly about her nudes being leaked online, but at the request of her family due to concerns over her safety, she has reluctantly chosen to remain anonymous.
Through the course of our conversations, A., now 24, was reluctant even to refer to her photographs as nudes. In Pakistani society — as she learned the hard way — people would lose all sympathy for her as soon as they heard the words “boyfriend” or “nude photographs.”
The bigger battle, she realized, was coming out of hiding herself. When BuzzFeed News first spoke to A. for this story, she was determined to identify herself and reclaim her narrative in all its details. What followed over the course of several interviews revealed the crossroads at which women find themselves when they want to “do the right thing” but, for the sake of their families and their own safety, must be cautioned against being too brave.
A. was 16 when she sent photographs of herself to a male friend over WhatsApp. The next year, in 2012, she learned that they had been leaked online.
“A friend told me that a group of boys was discussing my pictures and that there was a link where they could be downloaded by anyone,” she said over the phone from Karachi, the most populous city in Pakistan.
The friend to whom she’d sent the photographs was, she said, “ancient history.” A. had not spoken to him for over a year when the photos were leaked.
A. tells the story of her leaked photographs the way someone would describe a haunting. She has never been able to exorcise “the link” — as she and her family and friends have come to refer to the images — from the internet.
“We did not want anyone to make her feel that she was to be blamed and we never will, it was and is an act of violation against her.”
Sometimes “the link” appeared as a fake social media profile, a stranger with her face and body posing as a young woman on Facebook or Instagram. Other times, it was a downloadable Dropbox folder.
As the photographs circulated online, A. was bullied at school and shunned by friends. She sank deeper into depression and became suicidal, finally dropping out of school. Strangers hunted down her social media accounts and contact details, blackmailing her, threatening to expose her to her family, or worse, with rape and murder.
She was raised in a liberal environment by a supportive family, but A.’s story could’ve ended in devastation, as other stories where teenagers are sexually abused on the internet frequently do.
A relative who did not wish to be identified told BuzzFeed News that A.’s family first learned about the photographs from an outside source. “A few people close to us told us out of concern,” the relative said, adding that the family’s first response was to support A. “[We had] to let her know that we stand by her and will protect her. We did not want anyone to make her feel that she was to be blamed and we never will, it was and is an act of violation against her.”
Despite this, A. said she fought a long and lonely battle against the nameless, faceless people who would keep sharing “the link” online.
In 2014, she found her photographs on the Google Drive, in a folder disguised as notes from a professor’s class. Also on the Drive were images of nearly 5,000 women and girls arranged alphabetically, under their real names.
“There were pictures and information about of all of them — not just nudes, but also clothed selfies, profile pictures, display images all taken off their social media,” A. said.
“I don’t care anymore, but also, there isn’t a day that I don’t think about it.”
That same year, A. decided to go back to school. And she also began trying to contact the other young women on the Google Drive. She wanted to help them, but none of the women she found wanted anything to do with her.
“Many who had left the country because of the episode just wanted to forget about the whole thing. Others are still in hiding,” she said.
A. said she understood the desire some women had to forget about the past and move on with their lives in a different country.
“Even when I’m a mother someday, there will always be someone who’s seeing those pictures for the first time and judging my character,” A. said, her words tumbling out in a rush on the phone. “What people won’t realize is what I went through as a teenager, surviving the fallout of those pictures in Pakistani society. I don’t care anymore, but also, there isn’t a day that I don’t think about it.”
A. said she tried to email Pakistan’s cybersecurity authorities. “I was a kid and our only option was Federal Investigation Agency [Pakistan’s version of the FBI] or Cyber Security Centres. I mean how could I even go there alone? I contacted them many times but got no response so basically there was no help — and anyway, I could not imagine going there as a young, vulnerable woman, giving up all my data, showing them all my photographs and then going through a court process.” BuzzFeed News contacted Pakistan’s National Response Centre for Cyber Crime but is yet to receive a response.
In 2017, yet another version of “the link” resurfaced online, and A. contacted the cyber helpline set up by lawyer and internet-rights activist Nighat Dad, head of the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF).
DRF began the helpline in response to the murder of a Pakistani model, Qandeel Baloch, who was killed by her brother for “bringing dishonor” to his family. (In Pakistan, as in several parts of South Asia, women are routinely killed for exercising sexual agency, as the notion of “honor” is seen as inextricable from the chastity of young women.)
Between 2016 and 2018, the DRF helpline received nearly 3,000 calls, and the majority of callers (59%) were young women from semi-urban and urban centers. The most frequent complaint DRF received was from women whose social media accounts had been hacked or others who were being blackmailed. In 2017, another study by DRF found that 70% of Pakistani women were afraid of posting or sharing photographs of themselves online because they worried that the pictures would be misused.
A spokesperson for Facebook told BuzzFeed News that DRF was one of several safety organizations and nonprofits the company worked with to “help shape our products, policies and community education programs and create a safe space for people in Pakistan to communicate and share.”
In Pakistan, the spokesperson said, this had prompted the introduction of new tools giving people more control over who can download and share their profile pictures.
Facebook has developed tools that can identify intimate images shared on Facebook without people’s permission. When this type of content or revenge porn is reported to Facebook, the platform is now able to prevent it from being shared across Facebook, Messenger, and Instagram.
The bigger crisis, according to Dad, is that young women like A. who are sexually targeted online have very few options for seeking justice. Echoing A.’s experiences, Dad said the Pakistani government’s redressal mechanisms are slow and deeply problematic. Making or sharing explicit photographs is punishable with a jail term, along with a fine that may extend to 1 million rupees (around $7,150), but Dad told BuzzFeed News that it was next to impossible to get Pakistan’s cyber-law authorities to assist victims because of their lack of resources and victim-blaming mentality.
“In Pakistan, women enjoy certain freedoms in digital spaces that they still can’t talk about that in their actual lives,” Dad told BuzzFeed News in a phone conversation. “When something like this happens — like their private data getting compromised — the first response is only and always, ‘What were you doing sending photographs of yourself to a man in the first place?’”
“In Pakistan, women enjoy certain freedoms in digital spaces that they still can’t talk about that in their actual lives.”
Dad said DRF’s data suggested that Facebook and WhatsApp users are the most vulnerable to being hacked or having their data misused by blackmailers. While Facebook has stepped up its response system in Pakistan, WhatsApp (which is owned by Facebook but has its own complaints redressal system) is still catching up.
BuzzFeed News made repeated requests for comment to WhatsApp for this story but received no response.
WhatsApp, which has a massive presence in developing countries, has received huge criticism for the spread of misinformation and rumors in neighboring India — but there are relatively few reports of the app being breached by hackers. Last year, a “serial WhatsApp hacker” was arrested in Mumbai for a string of crimes, but his modus operandi did not involve remotely accessing private data in the way the word “hacking” is commonly used to imply. Instead, the man “sweet-talked women into sharing their OTPs (one-time passwords),” gained access to their WhatsApp, sent obscene messages to their contacts, and then blackmailed the women for nudes. He also claimed to have learned “how to hack” WhatsApp from YouTube.
Forums like Quora, Reddit, and YouTube are full of threads on how to hack WhatsApp but most of these over-promise the amount of data a third party can access. There is a consensus that being able to monitor a person’s “online” status, accessing a log of who they speak to and how often, and even the times at which they sleep can reveal a lot, but again, this is not because the tech platform itself is compromised.
Dad agreed that what several people described as “WhatsApp hacking” to the DRF helpline was often the result of human error or a lack of awareness.
“People don’t know they have rights online and this makes them vulnerable to people or companies that misuse their data,” she said. “They don’t know how to protect themselves with two-step verification and authenticators, so end up sharing data, passwords, and OTPs with real or virtual friends.”
Most people didn’t realize how an innocent mistake like sharing an OTP or clicking on a link promising money could eventually lead to massive data theft. “Mass messages are sent to thousands of WhatsApp and SMS users, building directories of information,” Dad said.
As an example, Dad showed BuzzFeed News screenshots of mass messages that routinely target poorer WhatsApp users, claiming (falsely) to be from one of three senders: the Pakistani Army, the Benazir Income Support Program (a government-run cash transfer program for people living in poverty), and Jeeto Pakistan, a popular game show on which winners can get thousands of Pakistani rupees.
“The other common thing is for someone to get access to your SIM card, clone it, and using WhatsApp send obscene or defamatory messages to all your contacts, before getting you banned [from] the platform.”
If they’re fortunate, Dad said, women might be able to approach forums like DRF, which help them reach out to big tech platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook. But in rural Pakistan women still won’t complain about the breach of private data.
“It’s similar to why they won’t complain about offline violence — even registering a complaint means stepping out of the house, exposing yourself to strangers who judge you for putting yourself out there in the first place.”
While reporting fake social media accounts is relatively easy, A. and Dad are still looking for ways to get rid of the Google Drive where her pictures were found. It refuses to stay buried. Just last week, A. received a message from a stranger who claimed to be a “well-wisher,” letting her know that he had found her nudes.
“Just telling you to delete all your data,” the stranger warned. “I know these are old photos, but still.”
Google Drive isn’t a social network like Facebook or Twitter, and BuzzFeed News has reported on how it can be used as a tool for harassment and stalking. When contacted about A.’s story, a spokesperson for Google told BuzzFeed News that Google Drive has clear policies that prohibit making sexually explicit or pornographic content publicly accessible.
“We take these issues very seriously and we remove files violating these policies when flagged by our users,” the spokesperson said.
The problem of sexual bullying through images stored and accessed through Google Drive may or may not be limited to Pakistan, because Google’s confidentiality clause prohibits the company from discussing specifics of other investigations. But Google’s terms of service and policies specifically prohibit users from harassment and making sexually explicit images and videos publicly accessible, and accounts found to be in violation of these policies (by singling someone out for abuse, threatening someone with serious harm, sexualizing a person in an unwanted way, or harassing them in other ways) could result in access to those files being limited, or the account being banned from Google.
“I’ve been through hell and survived. I want other women to know that they can too.”
BuzzFeed News also learned that in emergency situations, Google can escalate imminent threats of serious harm to the concerned law enforcement authorities. As a result of being contacted by BuzzFeed News for this story, Google said it is working with A. to find a permanent way to remove her images from the Google Drive.
“Pictures of women are stolen, photoshopped, and leaked off various platforms under the motive of ‘revenge’ or ‘jealousy,’ but no one ever points fingers at the perpetrator,” A. said. According to her research, she said, there have been five reported suicide cases in Pakistan due to image-based sexual abuse, “but there are definitely many others that aren’t reported due to family honor.”
As A. struggled with the decision to reveal her identity for this story, she spoke about why she is one of the only Pakistani women willing to speak about her personal experience.
“I don’t want anyone’s attention or pity,” she said. “I want to help women understand the stages you go through when you face something like this, how you fight it, how you seek help.”
But she said she ultimately understood her parents’ concern for her safety — particularly when strangers had accessed her address and contact details.
Over the past year, A. has tried to reclaim her story in several other ways. Most significantly, she has worked with DRF to create a multimedia campaign for victims of blackmail and revenge porn, telling her own story using actors in short films and GIFs. She submitted this project to her college in Karachi, despite the misgivings of her professors — several of whom blamed women like her for taking intimate photographs in the first place.
“People told me I’d never amount to anything, that my life was over,” she said. “But I passed college with a distinction. I’ve been through hell and survived. I want other women to know that they can too.” ●
Originally published at Buzzfeed