Meta tests new auto-blur tool and other features on Instagram designed to fight sextortion

Meta is trying out new tools on its Instagram platform to combat the sexual extortion of teens, including a feature that will automatically blur photos containing nudity in direct messages.

The social media company announced in a blog post Thursday that new features, including the auto-blur technology, are part of a campaign to fight sexual scams and make it tougher for criminals to contact teens.

“This feature is designed not only to protect people from seeing unwanted nudity in their DMs, but also to protect them from scammers who may send nude images to trick people into sending their own images in return,” the company said.

Meta also owns Facebook and WhatsApp but the nudity-blur feature won’t be added to those platforms.

Sexual extortion, or sextortion, happens when one person coerces another person into sending explicit photos of themselves, and then threatens to make those images public unless the victim pays money or engages in sexual favors. One recent case involves two Nigerian brothers who pleaded guilty Wednesday to sexually extorting teen boys across the country, including one 17-year-old in Michigan who took his own life. 

In another case, a 28-year-old former Virginia sheriff’s posed as a teen online in order to obtain nude pics from a 15-year-old girl in California whom he sexually extorted and kidnapped at gunpoint, after driving across country, killing her mother and grandparents and setting their home on fire. 

Sextortion has become such a major issue that the FBI in January warned parents to monitor their children’s online activity amid a rising number of cases.

Financial sextortion scams targeting teen boys 06:33

The nudity protection feature will be turned on by default globally for teens under 18. Adult users will get a notification encouraging them to activate it.

odnc-education.png A series of warnings will appear on Instagram accounts, urging users to be careful about sending explicit photos and chatting with someone you don’t know. Meta Platforms

In addition to the automatic blurring of images, a warning will appear giving users the option of whether or not they want to view the image. They’ll also have the option to block the sender and report the chat.

For users sending direct messages with nudity, a message will appear on screen reminding them to be cautious when sending “sensitive photos.” They’ll also be informed that they can unsend the photos if they change their mind, but that there’s a chance others may have already seen them.

To stop scammers and sexual predators from connecting with young people, the company says it is also expanding current restrictions, including not showing the “message” button on a teen’s profile to potential sextortion accounts, even if the two accounts are connected.

Children’s advocates applauded Meta’s move on Thursday, saying the features introduced appear encouraging. 

“We are hopeful these new measures will increase reporting by minors and curb the circulation of online child exploitation,” John Shehan, the senior vice president at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said in Meta’s blog post. 

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