The Justice Department Responds to Sen. Boxer on Sextortion—Sort Of

By Benjamin Wittes, Quinta Jurecic
Friday, August 5, 2016, 3:20 PM

Shortly after we released our sextortion reports back in May, Sen. Barbara Boxer wrote a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch seeking data on the scope and magnitude of the problem: "court records show that some of these cyber-criminals have blackmailed hundreds of different victims online. However, since specific data is not collected by any federal entity on online sexual extortion, the full extent of this crime is largely unknown. In an attempt to better understand and address these serious threats facing women, men and children on the Internet, please provide information outlining the efforts the Department of Justice is taking to collect this critical data."

Now, the Justice Department has responded—sort of. To be more precise, in a particularly lame letter dated July 14, it has given a lot of reasons why responding would be really, really hard: there's no agreed-upon definition of "sextortion"; statutes that criminalize sextortion are not necessarily limited to internet-based conduct; cases in which cyberstalking and cyber-harassment laws are implicated are not always charged as such; and it would thus be both over- and under-inclusive to report prosecutions under these laws. (The letter is available here.)

To which we say, uh, yeah.

Of course developing a data-stream on sextortion cases is hard. If it weren't hard, the data would already exist. But it's also necessary. The Justice Department in April declared that "Results of [a major 2016] survey indicate that sextortion is by far the most significantly growing threat to children, with more than 60% of survey respondents indicating this type of online enticement of minors was increasing." It's just not credible for the department to identify a crime as by far the fastest-growing online threat to children and have nothing rigorous to say about how frequent it is or how many cases the federal government is handling. Sextortion is also not just a problem affecting children; our study indicates a large number of adult victims as well. These offenses get largely lost if you don't count sextortion cases as their own category of offense.

Part of the problem here is that because we charge this conduct under a variety of different statutes, we have trouble thinking of it as a category of behavior of its own. It's child exploitation or pornography. It's cyber-harassment or stalking. It's computer crime. If we don't endeavor to think about it as a discrete criminal behavior in its own right, we risk never counting it and losing the sextortion problem amidst our stovepiped approach to criminal misbehavior. Yes, the stovepipes make counting hard, but that's exactly why we need to do it.