Online tool aims to prevent sextortion by helping teens remove explicit images from the internet

Published: Feb. 27, 2023 at 6:14 PM CST
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - A new online tool called Take It Down will help teenagers who want explicit images of themselves taken down from the internet. It was launched after the FBI issued a national public safety alert regarding an increase in reports of minors being coerced into sending explicit images.

Over the past year, the FBI investigated more than 7,000 reports of online sextortion of minors. According to Cat Morgan, Fierce Freedom’s community program specialist, sextortion is the threat to reveal evidence (images or videos) of sexual activity in order to extort sexual favors or money.

Take It Down is operated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The site is helping victims of sextortion stop the spread of their explicit images.

“This is really a game changer. This means that victims that are really afraid of the consequences and maybe aren’t ready for law enforcement intervention yet can just report that whether it’s for themselves or whether it’s for for someone else,” Morgan said.

Without having to upload any actual images, people can anonymously create a digital fingerprint (a unique set of numbers called a “hash”) for any explicit content that already exists and may be online. The hash goes into a database and tech companies that have agreed to participate in the project remove those images from their platforms. Some participating platforms include Facebook and Instagram.

Dr. Justin Patchin, criminal justice professor at UW-Eau Claire, said Take It Down has the potential to be an effective tool but there could be one problem with it.

“If that image is manipulated any way whatsoever, if it’s cropped, if somebody as a sticker to it, if it’s changed at all, it’s considered a new image. And so then it would need a new identifier. So if there is an image circulating online that you’d rather not have there... that you would rather not be online... it still poses risks that a variation of that image will still be there circulating or could be reposted in different places,” Patchin said.

Advocates still encourage using Take It Down or reporting sextortion crimes to the police in order to avoid severe consequences.

“Some some youth actually end up ending their lives over something like this. They just feel powerless. And so if you as a parent want to help or you as a caretaker want to help, I think creating an environment from a young age where there is no shame if this has happened to them and saying things like, I will always love you, you can always come to me, I want to help you,” Morgan said.

Patchin said through his research he learned that boys are more likely to be victimized.

“Boys are even less likely to come forward because of the embarrassment or because of the potential repercussions or the concern about repercussions of sharing the image in the first place. So they really feel trapped,” Patchin said.

Platforms like Instagram and Facebook are already participating in the Take It Down project. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is working to get more tech companies involved.

More information about how Take It Down works to remove explicit images from the internet can be found here.