‘Hackers leaked intimate photos after my laptop was stolen’

By Steven McIntosh, entertainment reporter

BBC Patricia Franquesabbc

When hackers threatened to leak a filmmaker’s nude photos stored on her stolen laptop, she turned on the cameras to document her ordeal.

Spanish director Patricia Franquesa was sitting in a Madrid cafe when thieves took her laptop in 2019.

Three months later, hackers contacted her demanding money and threatening to leak the intimate photos she had stored on the device if she didn’t pay.

Franquesa did not know – and still does not know – if the person who was trying to extort her was the same person who physically stole her laptop.

But in a situation where victims have so little control, Franquesa was able to document the entire episode on film from her perspective as it unfolded.

The result is My Sextortion Diary, which has just screened at the Sheffield Documentary Festival.

“Making a documentary was my way of taking control and power,” Franquesa tells BBC News. “It was my way of protecting myself, not victimizing myself and giving myself some dissociation, it was like building a bubble.”

The distance that making the film gave her was valuable and also helped her process what she was going through. “I’m still clearly me, but I needed to separate myself. I was talking about ‘Pati’, but there is Pati the character and Pati the director.”

He jokes that it’s darkly appropriate that such an experience “happened to someone who makes documentaries, so it’s the perfect opportunity to turn the tables (on the cameras).”

Getty Images Man using a laptopfake images

Hackers threatened to leak nude images stored on Franquesa’s laptop after stealing it from a Madrid cafe

Taking, storing and sending nude photographs is completely normal for an entire generation that has grown up with the Internet.

But it opens up a whole world of risks that those born in previous decades never faced.

“My father photographed my mother in a swimsuit, perhaps a little transparent,” smiles Franquesa, remembering a time that, in comparison, seems boring. “But since the digital world arrived, it is our new way of being intimate.”

In their case, the hackers showed how serious they were by leaking some of the images to their friends, family and colleagues, whom they found through their social media contacts.

But Franquesa does make some progress as the film progresses. The police write to her to tell her that they have made an arrest after examining CCTV footage from the cafe, which she eventually obtains and includes in the film.

It shows how three men, their faces blurred for the film, took the laptop and worked together from different positions inside the cafe.

But regardless of the ongoing police investigation, the hackers continue their attempts to extort her.

Exhausted, out of options and refusing to pay, Franquesa finally decides to upload the images to her own social networks, a horrible last resort, but one that took power away from the hackers.

“It was hard, I was crying,” she remembers. “It felt like the last moment of a marathon. I didn’t want to post the photos, I was waiting and waiting for this person to stop, and you see they don’t stop, so I had nothing else to do.”

Patricia Franquesa Still image from My Sextortion DiaryPatricia Franquesa

Much of the film is shot in smartphone proportions as Franquesa documents her experience.

Getting the hacker to stop wasn’t his only motivation, however. “It was up to me to say, ‘Hey, contacts, this hacker has these photos, he’s using my contacts, help me.'”

That upset the balance of power somewhat and meant Franquesa could recruit his friends and followers to help piece together a picture of the hacker and his behavior.

“Which changes the formula,” he says. “I wanted my contacts to tell me when they got the photographs, because then I will have more evidence to take to the police and keep the investigation open.

“It was breaking the shame,” he reflects. “The other person’s attempt to shame me is thwarted because I own my own photographs. And then it stopped, magically.”

The fact that the hacker broke off contact shortly after Franquesa uploaded the images suggests that it was someone who was already following her when she changed her accounts to private after the first blackmail attempt, but she still doesn’t know who.

The documentary has been well received at the festivals in which it has already been presented. Business Doc Europe’s Mark Adams described it as “a powerful and provocative real-life story, prescient in reflecting the unhappy reality faced by those who are forced to deal with the terrible behavior of unscrupulous hackers.”

‘Bittersweet ending’

The man who physically stole the laptop was eventually jailed. But for Franquesa, the main concern was not so much the laptop itself, but rather the way her own data was subsequently used against her.

“They sentenced him to 10 months in prison, just for stealing the computer. And I managed, in the judge’s sentence, to say that it is linked to possible blackmail,” he explains.

Since then, Franquesa’s focus has been on raising awareness about what happened and asking questions about how these criminal networks operate.

“I told the police that the guy (who stole the laptop) knows what he did with the computer. And the police told me that the computer was not going to be recovered, and I said, ‘I know, but what are they doing?’ ?’ doing with stolen devices?

“Because now there are many mafias. In Spain you steal devices and sell them, and then they go to people who hack the devices and take the data, find things and start blackmailing. I want to understand what that system is.” “.

She points out: “It is not just about justice in my case, because for me it is already over, but it is about the police understanding what is happening in these types of cases. What is the system of these mafias? If I were “If I were a police officer, I would be very curious.”

Patricia Franquesa Still image from My Sextortion DiaryPatricia Franquesa

Franquesa focuses the cameras on her own daily life after the theft of her laptop

The biggest challenge was how to make something cinematic with so little material. Franquesa can only document his own version of events, and most events occur through written communications: emails from hackers, letters from the police, or messages between Franquesa and his friends.

The director “did not see it as a limitation” since the goal of the film was to be a “digital diary.”

Hackers are represented by a digitally altered female voice, while text conversations are represented by digital speech bubbles that mimic WhatsApp threads.

But it is “also this form of narration that does not allow the film to go on longer than expected, arriving at a difficult moment.” noted Blake Williams of HyperReal Film Club.

“My Sextortion Diary is always engaging and finds a way to keep the narrative moving despite its unconventional approach.”

The documentary ends before the sentencing because, Franquesa laughs, “We needed to close the movie in time for South by Southwest!” – the festival where the film was screened in March. She says new text will now be added at the end after the conviction.

Ultimately, Franquesa hopes the film will help bring about change, because she feels the laws are not changing fast enough to keep up with criminal behavior.

“I want to shout that this is not working, the laws about our data. Our system that needs to protect us is moving very slowly. There is a problem here about what protections we have.

“The only satisfaction about this case is that we are talking about it now. The ending of the film is bittersweet. The success for Pati is making the film, but the hacker and justice are incomplete.”

And he concludes: “I hope that my case helps to understand what (the criminals) are doing, I am putting myself in front so that they can study my case and help other people.”

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