Revenge porn victim feels delayed police response allowed spread of intimate photos to continue

Brooke Garlow says it was two weeks before Cornwall, Ont., police acted on her complaint, during which time the photos spread to thousands of people in her community via social media.

Brooke Garlow launches complaint with Ontario watchdog against local police

Brooke Garlow of Cornwall, Ont., says inaction by local police on her revenge porn complaint made things worse. (Submitted by Brooke Garlow)

On a Monday morning in July, messages began bombarding Brooke Garlow's phone.

They all had one common theme that horrified her: "'There are naked pictures of you all over [Facebook] Messenger.'"

"I didn't understand what was going on," said Garlow, 38, and a mother of four children.

But she immediately recognized them as photos she'd shared with her romantic partner. A nightmare had begun that Garlow continues to live with as a victim of "revenge porn."

She called the local police in Cornwall, Ont., that same day, July 23, and was told her case would be handled by a detective trained in online crime.

But he was on vacation. It would take two weeks to get any action.

The delay made a bad situation worse, said Garlow, who has since filed a complaint with Ontario's police watchdog, the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD).

But that sort of delay is not unusual, says Suzie Dunn — a part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa, who has done extensive research into revenge porn — because police still seem to prioritize physical crimes over those committed online.

Revenge porn "is a crime that occurs over and over again," she said. "And the victimization occurs over and over."

Seen by thousands

Garlow eventually learned that those eight, intimate photos had spread to thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of people throughout Cornwall, the neighbouring Mohawk community of Akwesasne — where she once lived — and across Canada and into the U.S.

They were also sent to two of her children and all their Facebook friends.

A second Facebook account popped up around July 29 that posted the same photos on its profile.

That account sent them to everyone in Garlow's Facebook friends list and began transmitting the images to strangers, she said.

"I was basically just shutting down," said Garlow. "I just felt like it was hopeless and the pictures would never come down."

Garlow said she started doing her grocery and back-to-school shopping in Ottawa and Montreal because strangers in Cornwall stores would look at her and make comments.

She stopped walking to a nearby corner store after a group of teenagers hanging out nearby saw her, pointed at their phones and then to her.

A screenshot of a comment posted by someone in Akwesasne saying they had helped spread intimate photos of Garlow without her consent. (Submitted by Brooke Garlow)

Even the woman who drove her children's school bus received the photos.

"I was so humiliated by this, I didn't want to go out, I didn't want to see people," said Garlow. "I was absolutely helpless."

Garlow said she sent the photos more than a year ago to her long-term romantic partner. The relationship ended during this ordeal. Garlow never imagined this would happen.

"It can absolutely ruin your life in a heartbeat," she said.

Investigation begins

Garlow said she finally met the detective in question on Aug. 7. He contacted Facebook, which deleted the photos from every account that received and sent them later that month, she said.

The detective also obtained a warrant for user details and IP addresses that allowed the investigation to focus in on two internet providers for additional warrants to obtain physical addresses, she said.

Garlow said the detective showed her part of a roughly 600-page report that itemized every transmission of her photographs.

"It went out to thousands and thousands of people," she said.

A screenshot of the second Facebook account created to spread Garlow's intimate images. (Submitted by Brooke Garlow)

Cornwall Community Police Service spokesperson Stephanie MacRae said she could not comment on the situation "in order to preserve the integrity of the investigation," which is ongoing.

MacRae said the police service has two officers trained to deal with online crimes and is looking to train others.

Garlow provided CBC News with a letter from the OIPRD stating it was reviewing her complaint for a possible investigation. A spokesperson said the OIPRD couldn't comment on the status of investigations.

University of Ottawa part-time law professor Suzie Dunn says police agencies prioritize physical crimes over online crimes. (Suzie Dunn/Twitter)

Tried to report it

Garlow said she didn't know how to complain about photos sent over Facebook Messenger so she tried the process for reporting abusive statuses and posts.

Garlow said she sent Facebook a message describing the situation, but heard nothing back. A Facebook spokesperson said the social media platform does not have a record of her complaint.

The spokesperson said Facebook created tools specifically designed to prevent and protect against the sharing of non-consensual intimate images that is accessible by users and non-users of the platform. Those tools do not mention images sent via Facebook Messenger.

Experts say police need to act immediately on such complaints because the longer the wait, the larger the harm.

Halifax lawyer David Fraser, one of Canada's leading legal experts on internet, technology and privacy laws, notes that laws specifically targeting revenge porn-type offences were only added in 2014.

Fraser said if a police force lacks the resources to deal with these types of crimes, they should contact another agency to help out.

About the Author

Jorge Barrera

Reporter

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.