Telegram: Nest of naked girls leaked without permission – ‘They make me feel like a whore’

Warning: This article contains sexual content

Within a split second, Sara realized her nude photos had been leaked and shared on Telegram. His life suddenly changed. His Instagram, Facebook and phone numbers are also included. Suddenly he was contacted by an unknown man who asked for more photos.

“They made me feel like a prostitute, because (they believed) I would share intimate photos of me. As if I was worthless as a woman,” Sara said.

Sara, not her real name, sent the photo to one person which later turned out to be shared on a Telegram group with 18,000 followers.

Many of the group’s followers are from where he lives in Havana, Cuba. He was now worried that a stranger on the street might have seen him naked.

“I don’t want to go out, I don’t want to be in touch with my friends. I’m in a lot of pain.”

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Sarah is not alone. After months of investigating Telegram, we found large groups and channels sharing thousands of images of women filmed, stolen or leaked in at least 20 countries. In addition, there is little evidence that Telegram is trying to solve this problem.

Thousands of miles from Cuba, another woman named Nigar is in exile.

Nigar is originally from Azerbaijan, but was forced to leave his homeland. In 2021, a video of her having sex with her husband was sent to her family, then uploaded on a Telegram group.

“My mother cried and said, ‘There’s a video sent to me’,” Nigar said. “I feel shattered, completely devastated.”

The video was shared in a group of 40,000 members. Nigar’s ex-husband’s face is blurred, but his face is clear.

Nigar believes her ex-husband secretly filmed it to blackmail his brother, who is an outspoken critic of Azerbaijan’s president.

According to Nigar, his mother was told that the video would be shared on Telegram, unless his brother stopped his activities.

“They look at you like you’re a disgrace. Who cares that you’re married?” Nigar said.

Nigar briefly confronted her ex-husband about the video, but he denied recording it. We tried to get him to confess, but he kept quiet.

Nigar is now struggling to move on with his life. “I couldn’t recover. I saw a therapist twice a week,” he said. “They said there had been no progress so far. They asked if I could forget this, and I said no.”

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Sara’s photo and Nigar’s video had been reported to Telegram, but the platform did not respond. They are not alone in experiencing this.

Personal data such as home addresses and phone numbers of parents are included alongside explicit images.

We’ve seen group admins ask their members to post intimate pictures of ex-partners, colleagues, or fellow students to automated accounts, so that the pictures can be published without revealing the identity of the sender.

Telegram says it has half a billion active users worldwide – more than Twitter – and many of those users are attracted to the platform’s privacy guarantees.

Millions of people moved to Telegram in January 2021 after WhatsApp changed their privacy terms.

Telegram has also long been popular with pro-democracy protesters in countries where the media is heavily censored.

Users can upload without sharing their name or phone number, create public or private groups with up to 200,000 members, or broadcast channels to an unlimited number of users.

Despite Telegram’s reputation for privacy, only the “secret chat” option is end-to-end encrypted, ensuring only the two people communicating can see the message. These are the ground rules for secure chat apps like Signal and WhatsApp.

This platform attracts users who want a space that is not too many rules, including those that are prohibited on other platforms.

“According to Telegram and its owners, they don’t want to censor users,” said Natalia Krapiva, technology legal adviser at digital rights group Access Now.

Our research shows that this approach makes Telegram a haven for leaks and the upload of intimate images.

Telegram has no specific policy for dealing with intimate images shared without consent, but its terms of service require users to agree “not to upload illegal pornographic content on publicly viewable Telegram channels, bots, etc.”

Telegram also has a reporting feature in public, private groups, or channels where users can report pornographic content

To test how strictly Telegram enforces that policy, we reported 100 pornographic images via the reporting tool available in the app.

One month later, the 96 images we reported are still accessible. We couldn’t find the other four pieces of content because they were in a group that we no longer had access to.

Most disturbingly, while we were investigating these groups, an account from Russia tried to sell us a folder containing child abuse videos for less than a cup of coffee.

We reported this to Telegram and the police, but two months later the post and channel are still there. The account was only deleted after we contacted the Telegram media team.

Despite the soft moderation, Telegram does crack down on certain content.

After Apple removed Telegram from the App Store because of a video like the one it was offered to us, Telegram has been more proactive about child abuse content.

The platform also collaborated with the European Union’s agency for law enforcement cooperation, Europol, in 2019 to remove ISIS-laden content that proliferates on Telegram.

“We know that Telegram can remove and (has) removed content related to terrorism or very radical political content,” said researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, Dr Aliaksandr Herasimenka.

However, the removal of intimate content does not appear to be a priority.

We spoke to five Telegram content moderators who asked not to be named.

They told us they received user reports through an automated system, which were then sorted into “spam” and “not spam”.

They admit to not being proactive about looking for intimate images circulating, and as far as they understand, Telegram doesn’t use artificial intelligence to do that either.

This lack of action from Telegram has some women taking matters into their own hands.

Joanna found a nude photo of herself as a 13-year-old in a notorious Malaysian Telegram group.

He then created a fake Telegram account to join the group, then searched for the image and reported it anonymously. He also shared his findings with his friends.

Amidst intense media pressure, the group was eventually shut down. But during our investigation, we found at least two duplicate groups sharing the same image type.

“Sometimes you feel so helpless, we did a lot of things to try to remove these groups, but they still show up. Honestly, I don’t know if this will ever end,” said Joanna.

Telegram rejected our interview submissions, but in a statement they claim to proactively monitor public spaces and process user reports regarding content that violates the terms of service.

Telegram did not confirm whether uploading intimate images of people without consent is allowed on the platform, or whether they will be removed.

The serving of ads on several public channels on Telegram – along with investments – hints that its founder, Pavel Durov, intends to monetize the platform.

This may increase pressure on Telegram and its libertarian founder to be more in line with other platforms such as Whatsapp, which has begun introducing a policy of not sharing intimate photos.

It remains to be seen how long Telegram resists stricter moderation as they move into the market.

But for the women whose reputations and lives have been ruined by having their intimate images shared on Telegram, change can’t come that fast.

 

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