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Meta has new anti-sextortion tools, but some say they’re ‘far too little, far too late’ to protect youth

New features to prevent sextortion announced Thursday by Meta, the company that owns the Facebook and Instagram, have not only come years too late but do not go far enough, says the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

'I don't feel it's enough,' says father of P.E.I. teen who died by suicide over blackmail

Cell phone screens showing nude image protection tools from Meta.

Warning: This story deals with suicide. If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual extortion, or is struggling with mental health, you can find resources for help at the bottom of this story.


New anti-sextortion features announced Thursday by Meta, the company that owns the Facebook and Instagram, have not only come years too late but do not go far enough, says the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

Sextortion is a growing crime in Canada, and the perpetrators often use social media as a platform. The perpetrators will pose as someone they are not, share an explicit image with someone, lure them into sending an intimate image in reply, and then threaten to send the victim's images to their contacts if they don't send money.

"It's far too little and far too late. We've been begging for some of the things that they've announced here for probably a decade," Signy Arnason, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection's associate executive director, said of the new tools being tested by Meta.

"While some of the things here may be helpful, it really seems like a Band-Aid approach. The responsibility still rests with kids to keep themselves safe — and there's just so much more these platforms could be doing."

The new Meta features are aimed at stopping sextortion attempts by interceding when images are sent, by:

  • Blurring images when someone tries to send a nude picture through Instagram Direct Messenger (DM), to encourage people to think twice.
  • Blurring nude images for people receiving them.
  • Triggering warnings about the dangers of sharing when a nude picture is detected.
  • Linking to web sites with safety tips and resources.

Users would have to have these protections turned on, but the company said that would happen by default for users under 18. Adults would be encouraged to turn on the protections.

'Harry is lost to us because of this'

The crime of sextortion can have tragic consequences. Last April, 17-year-old Harry Burke died by suicide in eastern Prince Edward Island just hours after sending nude images of himself to someone who claimed to be a teenaged girl.

Harry's father, Carl Burke, is dismayed that despite these tragedies being repeated again and again, it has still taken years for social media companies to respond.

"I don't feel it's enough," Burke said about what Meta is doing.

"There's too much loss. Harry is lost to us because of this but there are other parents in Canada and the United States, many of them, that have suffered similar fates because of the social media platforms."

Meta launches new tools to curb sextortion on Instagram, Facebook

6 hours ago

Duration 9:51

Meta, the company that owns Facebook and Instagram, has announced it's testing new tools — including nudity filters and trigger warnings — designed to protect its users from sextortion and other forms of online intimate image abuse.

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection receives 10 reports of sextortion every day, but it says many cases are never reported, either to the centre or to police.

"We've got a serious problem on our hands here and this has been going on for far too long," said Arnason. "Platforms know way more about the activity that's occurring and there's an urgent need to be addressing this."

Social media companies have strong incentives not to act on the problem, she pointed out. Any measures they take could reduce engagement on their platforms, and lower engagement means lower ad revenues.

Burke said he doesn't understand how — with the money and human resources available to the social media giants — so little is being done.

"You just wonder how much you do matter," he said. "With Harry, I don't think he mattered a whole lot to those people. Certainly, nobody from those companies ever reached out to us."

In its news release, Meta said it has not been ignoring the issue.

"We've worked closely with experts for years to understand and track these scammers' behaviors," the Meta news release said.

"This is an incredibly adversarial space, where determined criminals continue to evolve their tactics to evade our protections."

Age verification and geofencing

Arnason said the company is still well behind on what it could be doing.

For example, she suggested age verification could flag teenagers when they are communicating with an adult just pretending to be another teen. Geofencing youth accounts, preventing them from communicating with international accounts, would also help because perpetrators are very often based outside of Canada.

Meta measures to protect youth from sextortion not enough, says charity

4 hours ago

Duration 3:33

Signy Arnason of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection says social media companies have a lot more work to do when it comes to shielding young people from online harm.

Arneson also said many social media accounts used for sextortion will have the same photo attached to them.

"They could be identifying every single account on their platform that's using that same image. We can't get them to trigger those types of things," she said.

CBC News asked a Meta spokesperson whether the company has plans to implement geofencing, age verification or the image tracking suggested by the centre, but it did not address those issues in its response.

A step forward

While advocates are concerned about how effective the new measures might be to prevent sextortion, Prof. Kaitlynn Mendes, the Canada research chair in inequality and gender, said the changes could have an impact on another problem.

In particular, the blurring of nude images for those receiving them could protect girls and women.

"I know from research that I'm doing with my… digital safety team, especially talking to young girls, that they really get bombarded with unwanted, say, dick pics or intimate images from often adult men once they join up to social media companies," said Mendes.

"It's possible that this kind of nudity filter at least alerts them to when this is going to happen."

Mendes described the changes as a step in the right direction, and a sign that social media companies are beginning to take these problems seriously.


If you or someone you know is struggling, here's where to get help:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Yarr

Web journalist

Kevin Yarr is the early morning web journalist at CBC P.E.I. Kevin has a specialty in data journalism, and how statistics relate to the changing lives of Islanders. He has a BSc and a BA from Dalhousie University, and studied journalism at Holland College in Charlottetown. You can reach him at kevin.yarr@cbc.ca.

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