Social media
The women probably don’t even know their photos are being used for sexual gratification of random persons online.

In the era of the internet and social media, it’s fun to share your photos and experiences. But imagine that an innocent picture you posted online was taken by someone and put on a page with a name along the lines of ‘Chennai girls’?

Sounds far-fetched? Sample this – if you just type ‘girls’ ‘mamis’ ‘hot women’ in Facebook’s search bar, you will find a number of pages which are dedicated to curating photos of women, mostly without their permission. Now, add an Indian city or state before ‘girls’ and you again find many pages which take photos from unsuspecting women’s profiles and use them.

I began by scrolling through one such page. Not only did it have photos of random women in various states of undress, but also regular pictures which seem to have been taken by these women at get-togethers or with their friends. The comments on these photos are even more nauseating. In one photo where two friends posed together, a man complains that the one in the white dress was “hiding her cleavage”. In yet another post, the admin had included a mobile number along with a woman’s photo. Here the men commenting greedily asked if it was indeed a real number.

Under a set of five photos of a young woman, many have commented that she ended her life after her boyfriend cheated on her. However, this hasn’t stopped many others from posting lewd comments.

Another such page which posts pictures of “real life” girls from Kerala ironically has a description which says that while the photos are sourced from the internet, photos which are under copyright and personal photos being used will be deleted.

A glance through the above page shows photos of women simply standing at the seaside, outside a building, by their birthday cake, at a mall and even in their wedding dress. These are indeed personal photos, and their subjects probably don’t even know they’re being used for sexual gratification of random persons online. Almost every picture has tens and hundreds of lewd comments beneath it.

The problem of revenge porn

It is also worth mentioning here that Facebook has a serious revenge porn problem.

Revenge porn or non-consensual pornography is basically a jilted partner or someone else with revenge as motivation posting nude, explicit or private photos of the subject on websites without his/her consent in an attempt to humiliate them.

According to an investigation by Nick Hopkins and Olivia Solon for The Guardian, Facebook assessed about 54,000 potential cases of revenge porn in a single month. The social networking site disabled over 14,000 accounts which were perpetuating such content, including the accounts uploading child sexual abuse material.

On many of these Indian pages which share photos of girls, the case is no different. That jilted partners may share their previous partners’ photos with such pages is not unheard of either.

Once photos of women are shared on such pages and groups, the possibilities of further misuse are endless. For instance, in April this year, Mumbai cyber police bust an online ‘dating club’ which used random photos from social networking sites and passed them off as members of the platform.

These included photographs of girls of “all ages”. The perpetrators then duped people by luring them to sign up for membership so that they could meet with these women for “casual dating and sex”, reported Gautam S Mengle for The Hindu.

And in February, TNM reported that Kerala Cyber Warriors, a group of self-proclaimed ethical hackers broke into 34 Facebook pages and 25 groups which were posting explicit and/or pornographic content. The members and followers of these groups and pages would send their ex-girlfriend’s photos and even photos they clicked of girls in public places with the admins, who would share them on their pages.

Identity theft

This is not all. There are many accounts by women online who have found that their photos have been used to set up fake profiles and catfish people, sometimes for a decade. ‘Catfishing’ is when someone lures the other into a relationship by adopting a fake online persona. This could be done by setting up fake social media and/or dating profiles. These women talk about being approached and even hounded by strangers (on the internet and in person) who have chatted with their fictional personas.

It is quite clear then that not only do these pages and groups have an audience, but also a good number of contributors.

It is also clear from a preliminary internet search that there are a number of tricks, methods and advice available for women to keep their photos safe on the internet, including removing them altogether. But this still doesn’t address the fundamental issue – that people think it is okay to steal women’s photos, sexualise them and curate entire groups and pages where people can comment on them, without their knowledge or consent. And the number of these pages seems to be growing each day.

What you can do

A neat little trick to see if your photos are being used without your permission, while not 100% reliable, is to do a Google reverse image search with your photo. And if you do find that your photos are being used inappropriately or without consent, read Elena Cresci’s article in The Guardian which provides a concise lowdown on how you can report this on various social networking and dating sites including Twitter, Instagram and Tinder. 

You can also read TNM’s explainer on what families can do when someone’s visuals are shared online without consent.