completely new DELHI — A. was 17 years old when she found her nude photographs on an alphabetized Google Drive.
There were hundreds of clickable folders within 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 within the Google Drive changed A.’s life. “I realized of which while I was isolated, I was not alone.”
In Pakistan, where A. grew up as well as also 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 of which while I was isolated, I was not alone.”
yet A. said discovering her nude photos drove her within the opposite direction. Instead of being fearful, she wanted to reach out to different 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, yet 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., at This specific point 24, was reluctant even to refer to her photographs as nudes. In Pakistani society — as she learned the hard way — people would likely 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. just for This specific story, she was determined to identify herself as well as also 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” yet, for the sake of their families as well as also 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 of which they had been leaked online.
“A friend told me of which a group of boys was discussing my pictures as well as also of which there was a link where they could be downloaded by anyone,” she said over the phone coming 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 likely describe a haunting. She has never been able to exorcise “the link” — as she as well as also her family as well as also friends have come to refer to the images — coming from the internet.
“We did not want anyone to make her feel of which she was to be blamed as well as also we never will, of which was as well as also is usually an act of violation against her.”
Sometimes “the link” appeared as a fake social media profile, a stranger with her face as well as also body posing as a young woman on Facebook or Instagram. different times, of which was a downloadable Dropbox folder.
As the photographs circulated online, A. was bullied at school as well as also shunned by friends. She sank deeper into depression as well as also became suicidal, finally dropping out of school. Strangers hunted down her social media accounts as well as also contact details, blackmailing her, threatening to expose her to her family, or worse, with rape as well as also murder.
She was raised in a liberal environment by a supportive family, yet A.’s story could’ve ended in devastation, as different stories where teenagers are sexually abused on the internet frequently do.
A relative who did not wish to be identified told BuzzFeed News of which A.’s family first learned about the photographs coming from an outside source. “A few people close to us told us out of concern,” the relative said, adding of which the family’s first response was to support A. “[We had] to let her know of which we stand by her as well as also will protect her. We did not want anyone to make her feel of which she was to be blamed as well as also we never will, of which was as well as also is usually an act of violation against her.”
Despite This specific, A. said she fought a long as well as also lonely battle against the nameless, faceless people who would likely keep sharing “the link” online.
In 2014, she found her photographs on the Google Drive, in a folder disguised as notes coming from a professor’s class. Also on the Drive were images of nearly 5,000 women as well as also girls arranged alphabetically, under their real names.
“There were pictures as well as also information about of all of them — not just nudes, yet also clothed selfies, profile pictures, display images all taken off their social media,” A. said.
“I don’t care anymore, yet also, there isn’t a day of which I don’t think about of which.”
of which same year, A. decided to go back to school. as well as also she also began trying to contact the different young women on the Google Drive. She wanted to help them, yet 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 as well as also 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 1st time as well as also judging my character,” A. said, her words tumbling out in a rush on the phone. “What people won’t realize is usually what I went through as a teenager, surviving the fallout of those pictures in Pakistani society. I don’t care anymore, yet also, there isn’t a day of which I don’t think about of which.”
A. said she tried to email Pakistan’s cybersecurity authorities. “I was a kid as well as also our only option was Federal Investigation Agency [Pakistan’s edition of the FBI] or Cyber Security Centres. I mean how could I even go there alone? I contacted them many times yet got no response so basically there was no help — as well as also anyway, I could not imagine going there as a young, vulnerable woman, giving up all my data, showing them all my photographs as well as also then going through a court process.” BuzzFeed News contacted Pakistan’s National Response Centre for Cyber Crime yet is usually yet to receive a response.
In 2017, yet another edition of “the link” resurfaced online, as well as also A. contacted the cyber helpline set up by lawyer as well as also internet-rights activist Nighat Dad, head of the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF).
DRF began the helpline in response to the murder of a Pakistani design, 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 usually seen as inextricable coming from the chastity of young women.)
Between 2016 as well as also 2018, the DRF helpline received nearly 3,000 calls, as well as also the majority of callers (59%) were young women coming from semi-urban as well as also urban centers. The most frequent complaint DRF received was coming from women whose social media accounts had been hacked or others who were being blackmailed. In 2017, another study by DRF found of which 70% of Pakistani women were afraid of posting or sharing photographs of themselves online because they worried of which the pictures would likely be misused.
A spokesperson for Facebook told BuzzFeed News of which DRF was one of several safety organizations as well as also nonprofits the company worked with to “help shape our products, policies as well as also community education programs as well as also create a safe space for people in Pakistan to communicate as well as also share.”
In Pakistan, the spokesperson said, This specific had prompted the introduction of completely new tools giving people more control over who can download as well as also share their profile pictures.
Facebook has developed tools of which can identify intimate images shared on Facebook without people’s permission. When This specific type of content or revenge porn is usually reported to Facebook, the platform is usually at This specific point able to prevent of which coming from being shared across Facebook, Messenger, as well as also Instagram.
The bigger crisis, according to Dad, is usually of which 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 as well as also deeply problematic. producing or sharing explicit photographs is usually punishable that has a jail term, along that has a fine of which may extend to 1 million rupees (around $7,150), yet Dad told BuzzFeed News of which of which was next to impossible to get Pakistan’s cyber-law authorities to assist victims because of their lack of resources as well as also victim-blaming mentality.
“In Pakistan, women enjoy certain freedoms in digital spaces of which they still can’t talk about of which in their actual lives,” Dad told BuzzFeed News in a phone conversation. “When something like This specific happens — like their private data getting compromised — the first response is usually only as well as also always, ‘What were you doing sending photographs of yourself to a man within the first place?’”
“In Pakistan, women enjoy certain freedoms in digital spaces of which they still can’t talk about of which in their actual lives.”
Dad said DRF’s data suggested of which Facebook as well as also 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 usually owned by Facebook yet has its own complaints redressal system) is usually still catching up.
WhatsApp, which carries a massive presence in developing countries, has received huge criticism for the spread of misinformation as well as also rumors in neighboring India — yet 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, yet his modus operandi did not involve remotely accessing private data within the way the word “hacking” is usually 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, as well as also then blackmailed the women for nudes. He also claimed to have learned “how to hack” WhatsApp coming from YouTube.
Forums like Quora, Reddit, as well as also YouTube are full of threads on how to hack WhatsApp yet most of these over-promise the amount of data a third party can access. There is usually a consensus of which being able to monitor a person’s “online” status, accessing a log of who they speak to as well as also how often, as well as also even the times at which they sleep can reveal a lot, yet again, This specific is usually not because the tech platform itself is usually compromised.
Dad agreed of which 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 as well as also This specific makes them vulnerable to people or companies of which misuse their data,” she said. “They don’t know how to protect themselves with two-step verification as well as also authenticators, so end up sharing data, passwords, as well as also 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 as well as also SMS users, building directories of information,” Dad said.
As an example, Dad showed BuzzFeed News screenshots of mass messages of which routinely target poorer WhatsApp users, claiming (falsely) to be coming from one of three senders: the Pakistani Army, the Benazir Income Support Program (a government-run cash transfer program for people living in poverty), as well as also Jeeto Pakistan, a favorite game show on which winners can get thousands of Pakistani rupees.
“The different common thing is usually for someone to get access to your SIM card, clone of which, as well as also using WhatsApp send obscene or defamatory messages to all your contacts, before getting you banned [coming 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 as well as also Facebook. yet in rural Pakistan women still won’t complain about the breach of private data.
“of which’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 within the first place.”
WhatsApp told BuzzFeed News the app includes quite a few ways for users to secure themselves coming from hacking attempts. For instance, the 1st time a user receives a message coming from someone outside their address book, WhatsApp gives them the option of blocking or reporting the message as spam. WhatsApp also has spam detection technology of which identifies as well as also bans accounts engaging in abnormal behavior, a spokesperson said, such as bulk messaging, so they can’t be used to spread spam or misinformation.
The spokesperson said WhatsApp relies on user reports to take action against abusive accounts. Complaints can be made online, as well as also users are encouraged to turn on two-step verification.
While reporting fake social media accounts is usually relatively easy, A. as well as also Dad are still looking for ways to get rid of the Google Drive where her pictures were found. of which refuses to stay buried. Just last week, A. received a message coming from a stranger who claimed to be a “well-wisher,” letting her know of which he had found her nudes.
“Just telling you to delete all your data,” the stranger warned. “I know these are old photos, yet still.”
Google Drive isn’t a social network like Facebook or Twitter, as well as also BuzzFeed News has reported on how of which can be used as a tool for harassment as well as also stalking. When contacted about A.’s story, a spokesperson for Google told BuzzFeed News of which Google Drive has clear policies of which prohibit producing sexually explicit or pornographic content publicly accessible.
“We take these issues very seriously as well as also we remove files violating these policies when flagged by our users,” the spokesperson said.
The problem of sexual bullying through images stored as well as also accessed through Google Drive may or may not be limited to Pakistan, because Google’s confidentiality clause prohibits the company coming from discussing specifics of different investigations. yet Google’s terms of service as well as also policies specifically prohibit users coming from harassment as well as also producing sexually explicit images as well as also videos publicly accessible, as well as also 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 different ways) could result in access to those files being limited, or the account being banned coming from Google.
“I’ve been through hell as well as also survived. I want different women to know of which they can too.”
BuzzFeed News also learned of which 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 just for This specific story, Google said of which is usually working that has a. to find a permanent way to remove her images coming from the Google Drive.
“Pictures of women are stolen, photoshopped, as well as also leaked off various platforms under the motive of ‘revenge’ or ‘jealousy,’ yet no one ever points fingers at the perpetrator,” A. said. According to her research, she said, there have been 5 reported suicide cases in Pakistan due to image-based sexual abuse, “yet there are definitely many others of which aren’t reported due to family honor.”
As A. struggled with the decision to reveal her identity just for This specific story, she spoke about why she is usually 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 specific, how you fight of which, how you seek help.”
yet she said she ultimately understood her parents’ concern for her safety — particularly when strangers had accessed her address as well as also contact details.
Over the past year, A. has tried to reclaim her story in several different ways. Most significantly, she has worked with DRF to create a multimedia campaign for victims of blackmail as well as also revenge porn, telling her own story using actors in short films as well as also GIFs. She submitted This specific project to her college in Karachi, despite the misgivings of her professors — several of whom blamed women like her for taking intimate photographs within the first place.
“People told me I’d never amount to anything, of which my life was over,” she said. “yet I passed college that has a distinction. I’ve been through hell as well as also survived. I want different women to know of which they can too.” ●
Some photos have been removed coming from This specific post due to increased security concerns for the subject.
This specific post has been updated to include a response coming from WhatsApp.