The first time I ever heard of Anon-IB — a now-notorious anonymous image board where tens of thousands of sexually exploitative images are shared without their owners’ consent — was in a text message from my roommate. In it, she delicately stated that my photos were on the site, and that I should probably check it out. I remember racing back to my apartment to pull up the sinister-looking link composed largely of random numbers and letters.
The year was 2013, and I was in college — one year before the iCloud hack of celebrity photos brought the topic of nonconsensual pornography into the mainstream. My roommate found out about the site’s existence through a Facebook post by one of our classmates; like me, this classmate had been informed that their photos could be found on Anon-IB and was now warning others. I’d never heard of the site before and, perhaps naively, had no idea such forums existed. I clicked over to the site in terror, my heart thumping as the page slowly loaded.
AnonIB is said to have been created in 2006. (These days, the site is fairly well known, having been linked to the aforementioned celebrity photo hack and the nonconsensual pornography scandal that rocked the Marine Corps last year.) Despite its unassuming appearance, it’s no small operation. According to the web analytics firm SimilarWeb, the site has received more than 3.31 million page views over the past six months (nearly half of which seemingly come from the United States). Advertisements for pornographic websites are typically displayed at the bottom of every page. Writing for the New York Post late last year, one journalist estimated this ad revenue puts Anon-IB’s monetary value at around $700,000.
Disturbingly, many Anon-IB users’ IP addresses can be linked to U.S. government offices — as Einar Otto Stangvik, a Norwegian investigative journalist and ethical hacker, recently discovered after collecting 600,000 IP addresses from online and offline copies of Anon-IB using software he wrote. Stangvik tells me he believes the number of active Anon-IB users to be “in the high tens of thousands.”
Taking advantage of the opportunity to be anonymous, these users post their “wins” (as these explicit images have been termed by those who seek and spread them) and solicit “wins” from others on the site’s many region-specific message boards. The site also hosts other types of nonconsensual pornography, like “creepshots,” “celeb fakes,” and “x-ray.” (The latter two categories describe selfies and other photos that are Photoshopped to look like the person in them is undressed and/or engaged in a pornographic act.) Images posted on Anon-IB and similar sites (“chan” boards, subreddits, and even gaming communities) often make their way to more public places like Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.
Posting, possessing, or doctoring images to create child pornography is a federal crime. But if you’re an adult, and living in one of the 13 states without laws that explicitly address nonconsensual pornography, you may not have much in the way of legal protection if you find a private photo of yours on a site like Anon-IB. Some of the site’s victims and their lawyers have found that copyright law supports their right to have their photos taken down, but that’s about it. Progress on a federal bill about revenge porn has been limited so far.
Anon-IB only hosts a limited amount of content at a time, meaning that old images disappear after a certain amount of new content is posted. But because of how challenging it can be to get one’s photo taken down (and how easily it can be downloaded and reposted or shared to new platforms), some women’s photos have been on these boards for years.
Now in their mid-twenties, some victims are still dealing with explicit photos they took for their first boyfriends, downloaded by Anon-IB users and now spread across the web. It still terrifies me to think just how easily I could have been one of them.