California teams with tech firms to fight cyber exploitation

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

LOS ANGELES -- California's attorney general has teamed with leaders in the tech industry and law enforcement to combat so-called cyber exploitation - the practice of anonymously posting explicit photographs of others online, often to extort money from the victims.

Kamala Harris announced Wednesday early results of the Cyber Exploitation Working Group, which includes representatives from the Department of Justice and technology giants like Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Twitter.

"This is a new crime because it's using new technology, and we need the law to catch up with it," Harris told The Associated Press.

The group formed in February created an online hub that provides tools for victims seeking assistance and a "cheat sheet" for local police about new and existing laws.

The collaboration works toward updating state laws, increasing police training and promoting victim advocacy to bring awareness to the crime that Harris said undermines privacy, basic civil rights and public safety.

At least 90 percent of all targets of cyber exploitation are women and girls, according to a study by the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and cited by the attorney general's office. Forty-nine percent of victims reported they had been stalked or harassed online by users who saw their personal photos, the research showed.

An Oklahoma man was sentenced in June to three years in jail after his California conviction for trying to extort money from people who wanted explicit photos removed from a revenge porn website. Casey Meyering, 28, pleaded no contest last month to extortion, attempted extortion and conspiracy.

Harris' office said Meyering operated, a site that solicited visitors to anonymously post nude photographs of individuals without their permission.

The site's California forum had more than 400 postings, including one of a Napa County woman who paid a $250 "take down" fee.

In February, a San Diego man, Kevin Bollaert, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for operating a similar website, the first cyber exploitation case of its kind in the nation, according to Harris.

Many tech firms, including Facebook and Google, have instituted new policies making it easier for users to request that unauthorized online images are taken down, said John Doherty, vice president at TechNet and a member of the working group.

The AG's office this year sponsored two state bills that give law enforcement more tools to investigate and prosecute cyber exploitation cases. The first measure, SB 676, extends the forfeiture provision to revenge porn, allowing authorities to remove images from unauthorized possession.

The second bill, AB 1310, amends existing law to allow search warrants to be issued for cyber exploitation crimes. It also expands and clarifies jurisdiction so that revenge porn cases are prosecuted where the victim lives.

Both laws were signed by Gov. Jerry Brown and become effective Jan. 1, 2016.

The Los Angeles Police Department, which is part of the working group, has committed resources to fighting cyber exploitation, Capt. John Romero said.

"Cyber crimes are not virtual," Romero said at a news conference on Wednesday. "Cyber crimes hurt real people and law enforcement need the tools to reach out and touch the offenders and we need the tools to protect the victims."