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.

A screenshot of Anon-IB’s homepage from February 2018.

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.

Anon-IB threads in which users solicit nude photos of their peers (pixelated by the author).

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.

When my photos showed up on Anon-IB, I was incredibly lucky. The photos of me — pulled from my Facebook and posted on a thread called “College Bitches” — were not “wins”; in other words, they weren’t nudes. One was a selfie that I had taken while lying on my stomach in my friend’s yard, propped myself up in a way so that my shoulders and the top of my chest could be seen. Another was a Photobooth snapshot I had taken on my new MacBook at age 17, sitting on my bed in a spring dress with my best friend.

The photos of me shared on Anon-IB in 2013.

The original poster, whose identity still eludes me, had uploaded the photos to a thread dedicated to my state school system. The pics were posted alongside my name, hometown, and a few lines of text soliciting more images. Below my photos, another anonymous poster had added something along the lines of “Definitely [nude] pics from this one out there.”

I felt fortunate that no one had found what they were looking for, but the insidious and calculated nature of this request troubled me. I didn’t sleep well that night, and it would be weeks before I stopped anticipating the worst every time I heard my phone ding with a text or Facebook message.

“I remember you being pretty distraught,” my then-boyfriend tells me as we rehash the incident now, five years later. “To me, it kind of felt like you had a target on your back.”

Scared, indignant, and somewhat paranoid, I went about the futile step of removing dozens of loose acquaintances from my Facebook friends list. At that point it didn’t feel like there was anything else I could do besides wonder who was looking to exploit me, and why. I didn’t realize that fighting back was even an option. Thankfully, others have.

Katelyn Bowden is a jewelry maker, rugby aficionado, and 31-year-old mother of two. She’s also a victim of nonconsensual pornography that made its way to the internet after images of her were taken from her ex’s stolen cellphone. She was first alerted to the fact that her photos could be found on an Anon-IB board dedicated to her Ohio hometown in May 2017. She has been fighting the site ever since.

Bowden’s pivot from victim to activist was fairly instantaneous. After doing all she could to get her own image taken down (with the help of a friend in IT and a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice sent to Anon-IB’s administrators), Bowden began searching for the person who caused this. Her online sleuthing led to the discovery that her photos had originally been posted to the pornographic tube site xHamster.com by an acquaintance who had stolen her ex’s phone. They had been engaged in a very casual text flirtation around the time he did it. She confronted the man and got him to confess over text, where he claimed, weakly, that other people on the board had already been asking for her images, which is why he stole the phone and posted hers.

But when Bowden brought the evidence to the police, they told her that the only crime they could charge him with was the theft of the phone.

“Basically, they were saying that the cellphone had more rights than a human being. And I was really outraged,” she tells me.

Katelyn Bowden (far left) and other BADASS members at the Ohio Senate last month advocating for anti-nonconsensual image-sharing legislation introduced by Ohio State Senator Joe Schiavoni.

Bowden decided to do the only thing she could think of to fight the injustice: She began surveilling the site herself. On a regular basis, she started identifying and notifying other women whose photos she found on Anon-IB. Eight months later, she’s still doing it.

That practice led to Bowden recently founding a fledgling nonprofit organization called BADASS (Battling Against Demeaning and Abusive Selfie Sharing), which currently includes more than 500 people from 39 U.S. states and six other countries. Every member has been through some variation of this same kind of exploitation. In a closed online setting, they speak candidly about their experiences without fear of victim-blaming. They’ve also been advocating for the passage of an anti–revenge porn bill in Ohio, where the nonprofit is based. Other recent projects have included marching for their cause at the 2017 Women’s March and creating darkly funny memes about the topic. One of Bowden’s favorite tongue-in-cheek jokes is to start a thread called “Show Me Your Kitties,” encouraging members to show photos of their pet cats.

“I always tell people, ‘Hey, this is the coolest group that you never wanted to join,’” she jokes.

Bowden (who has taken on this cause as her full-time job) and other highly active BADASS members also use the platform to share step-by-step instructions for getting photos taken down from Anon-IB and similar sites (like emailing a DMCA violation complaint in an authoritative manner). They also present avenues for victims seeking legal recourse and advise on cybersecurity best practices.

“We have pastors’ wives talking to dominatrixes and sharing info on VPNs,” Bowden says. “It’s insane how this really brought everyone together.”

Sitting in the one-room office of Daniel Szalkiewicz’s Midtown Manhattan law practice, I’m struck by how odd the sepia-toned family photos on his desk look next to his computer monitor, which is lit up with images of nude women. Szalkiewicz is showing me one of the many Tumblr blogs dedicated to revenge porn, most of which is likely culled from Anon-IB.

I’ve gone to Szalkiewicz to understand some of the processes by which he is able to identify and pursue legal action against anonymous Anon-IB users. In this particular case, he had to successfully sue both Tumblr and an email provider for the information he was after (all while protecting his client’s identity). Szalkiewicz is among many lawyers across the country who have volunteered their time and expertise to help these victims.

This kind of approach isn’t an option for every potential client who contacts him, many of whom now come directly through the BADASS group. Those living in states without revenge-porn laws don’t have as many options. For these clients, the best Szalkiewicz can do is help get the photo removed from Anon-IB. He does this free of charge — he considers it a consultation. Szalkiewicz estimates that his firm has done this for upwards of 100 people over the past few years.

“I’m a really bad businessman,” he says with a laugh. “I went to law school because I wanted to help people. We’ve been lucky, because we have some clients who cover our expenses. To me, it’s more important to help people out.” (The associate attorney Szalkiewicz employs tells me that it’s not unusual for him to call her at 10:00 p.m. while working on these cases after a long day at the office.)

For another client, Szalkiewicz shows me his initial email correspondence with Anon-IB, the subpoena he served the site, and then the IP address he obtained. That takes us to the American Registry for Internet Numbers, which takes us to a cell service provider. After sending a court order to the provider, he has a spreadsheet revealing yet another series of numbers. It takes a little bit of Excel magic (and the fact that this Anon-IB user posted the image more than once) — and voilà, we’ve got a single phone number. One more click and I’m looking at the Facebook page of a thin, blonde, preppy-looking young man no older than 25. He’s hugging a woman I’d assume is his girlfriend and smiling broadly in his cover photo. That’s our guy.

Szalkiewicz tells me that the majority of the perpetrators are repentant and apologize profusely once they’re found out.

“One of the biggest reasons people are able to do this is because of the anonymity behind it,” he says. “But once you find out who they are…we’ve had everything you could imagine. We’ve had psychiatrists, we’ve had a lot of military personnel, a lot of people who work for [local and state government], teachers, sex offenders.”

I am comforted after learning about the work of people like Stangvik, Bowden, and Szalkiewicz. In the face of Anon-IB’s massive, mysterious user base, they have given victims the opportunity to regain some of their power.

At the same time, it’s hard for me to keep from getting hung up on the fact that this site still exists at all. For five years, I’ve viewed it as some kind of digital bogeyman. I ask everyone I interview the same thing, like a broken record: “What will it take to finally get this site down?”

Stangvik, the ethical hacker, says that another major piece of the Anon-IB puzzle may be soon uncovered — and it might just be enough to bring the site down.

“There are a few [hackers] who are looking into who [Anon-IB’s owners] are, with some fairly good leads, so we might know before long,” he says in an email.

For all Anon-IB has taught me about the value of privacy, that thought appeals to me. What poetic justice it would be to see these reckless people learn how terrifying it feels to be exposed.