Blackmail: It sounds like something out of a lurid true-crime story or mystery novel. We picture envelopes full of compromising photos, or perhaps espionage in military or corporate circles. Rarely do we think of blackmail as something that could happen to us, nor do we consider how easily our computers, our tablets and our smartphones could facilitate this. Yet Internet connectivity – and our devotion to devices that make this possible – is also facilitating blackmail on multiple fronts.
Some Internet blackmail is subtle. As discussed previously in Technocracy, Myspace is among those once-popular social networks that users left for Facebook. Most people who had Myspace accounts deleted them or simply abandoned them. It is the latter that a “desperate” Myspace administration has tried to “blackmail” into logging into their long-defunct accounts, according to the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey.
“Thousands of former Myspace users, who long ago grew up, got Facebook and forgot that Myspace was ever a thing, got an unsettling message from the undead social network over the weekend,” writes Dewey. “The site is still around, like some sort of digital zombie. And it has 15 billion pictures from a time before the Internet knew better. ‘Your Photos are Back!’ reads the subject line of the unintentionally (?) ominous marketing email, before going on to promise/threaten ‘the good, the rad, and the what were you thinking.'”
Dewey goes on to explain that while Myspace insists this new campaign isn’t blackmail (it is simply “reaching out” to an untold number of “past users” in an effort to “re-engage them”), it’s hard to see it is as anything but. MySpace can’t put its advertisements in front of your eyeballs if you never log into it. If they can lure you back by making you worry that your old photos are still hanging around there – they are counting on your desire to log in and delete those forgotten pictures – then they have a shot at pulling you back in (which probably sounds a lot more like a line from “Godfather III” than Myspace’s administration intended).
“The new Myspace prioritized musician pages and encouraged them to upload songs and videos, which fans could then repost to their own profiles,” Dewey writes. “… But it’s unclear whether any of those changes actually paid off. As of last October, the site reported 31 million monthly users, most of them ‘millennials and artists’ – including El-P and Pharrell. By comparison, however, Myspace had well over 100 million monthly users at its peak, and Facebook has a mind-boggling 1.28 billion now. This latest marketing campaign – which reads as though the relaunch never even happened – would seem to suggest that new Myspace hasn’t exactly won hearts and minds.”
Most of the time, however, blackmail comes not from the corporate entities who court our dollars, but from criminals. Apple is warning iPhone and iPad users to change their passwords following a hacker’s “ransom” attacks. “Dozens of devices across the world have been disabled by the cyber criminal, ‘Oleg Pliss,’ who has tried to blackmail users at £55 a time,” reports the U.K.’s Metro. “The attacks began in Australia and New Zealand, but there were signs last night that they were spreading to Britain and the U.S. as victims began flooding Apple’s community support forum with complaints. … David Emm, from digital security firm Kaspersky Lab, said: ‘It seems likely that cybercriminals gained access to Apple ID credentials, for example by using phishing emails targeting Apple IDs. By using the credentials to access an Apple iCloud account, the attackers can enable the ‘Find My iPhone’ service.'”
This is explicit, not implied blackmail. The hacker takes control of the iPhone or iPad, locks the device, and then messages the owner, demanding about $90 USD. This is similar to virus attacks that flood the affected machine with messages claiming the owner must pay for software that will stop the infection, but it’s a bit more personal, as it requires the hacker to communicate directly with the user in demanding his ransom amount.
Schemes to blackmail people through the Web sometimes cost a lot more than money. When Roger Ver, an American expatriate living in Japan (who is deeply involved in bitcoin investments), received a blackmail threat from a hacker, he turned vigilante. The hacker had Ver’s personal information from an old email account. When the hacker tried to extort virtual bitcoin currency from Ver, Ver simply used the same funds to place an online bounty for the hacker’s arrest. The hacker quickly capitulated out of fear over the repercussions.
Another such attempt that went horribly wrong occurred recently in Colorado. A 43-year-old man named William Otto was convicted of first-degree murder after he killed two teenagers. Claiming self-defense, Otto explained that the two teens had a cellphone video of Otto soliciting sexual acts from one of the pair.
The teens tried to extort money from Otto (who claimed they then pulled a knife on him when their blackmail plan failed). In an attempt to make sure the video never made it to the Web, Otto burned the teen’s phones, destroying the majority of the evidence in the case. The case is not unique, either (although the murder is). A sex offender in England convinced multiple teenagers and underage girls to send him indecent pictures of themselves. He then extorted money from them by threatening to put the images on the Internet. The girls have plenty of company in their distress: Police in West Midlands are warning that Internet blackmailers “are luring men into performing sexual acts online” before “threatening to post the videos onto YouTube.” The blackmailers are demanding the equivalent of thousands of dollars.
Internet blackmail can happen to anyone who uses the Web. It is happening to thousands of people right now. It is happening to people you know. Consider carefully the information you make electronically accessible. Consider also what you do offline that would harm you if it became public on the Internet. The reputation you save may be your own.
Media wishing to interview Phil Elmore, please contact [email protected].