IN TUCSON IN 2012 I’m walking across a hospital parking lot on my way to class. It’s not even noon and the asphalt is already squishing a little bit underneath my feet – not the whole thing; it’s a well-built parking lot and one-hundred-plus degrees isn’t an abnormal temperature for these kinds of materials or this corner of the world; it’s just the edges and the dark black lines that look like strips of flattened snakes or tread on gum where cracks and crumbs have been repaired with fresher tar are melting back into the earth. I’m talking to a lawyer on the phone. He sounds attractive, but what do I know – anybody trying to help you glows like sunshine sometimes, even from afar, and besides, I’ve always been overly imaginative. He’s asking if I’d like compensation, financially, for any losses or inconveniences I experienced due to a crime I was a victim of two years earlier, when I lived in a California dorm apartment and a neighbor got control of my laptop camera and used it to take pictures of me without my awareness or consent.
It’s sunny out and I’ve made new friends recently; I haven’t thought about this case in months; I’m feeling good. I tell the lawyer about how even though I’ve already had my laptop hard drive replaced, it might be nice if I had funding to replace the whole machine completely. If I could get a new computer out of all of this that would be something. He makes a note of it and asks if I had to take any time off work or class, if the incident cost me anything in financial, educational, or career terms – no, no, no, I say. The way I cope with things has always been to act like things are normal, fine; to focus on the tasks at hand; to keep up with my schedule and get everything all done; feel like a winner everywhere as much as possible because I know I’m losing something elsewhere. Besides, I think – I always thought – nobody died or anything. How bad could it have been?
Therapy? The lawyer asks. Did you have any physical or mental injuries you saw a doctor or psychologist for? I went to therapy directly after, because it was $15 a session at the campus clinic and I thought it was a good idea, but we mostly talked about boys and family and fear of change. In hindsight I don’t remember bringing up what now seems a life-altering circumstance, even though it’d only occurred weeks before my sessions started. So therapy might be nice, I tell the lawyer. Again, I say, I’m happy, in a new state, doing well in grad school, with a new job, new friends, flying high, taking fresher steps in life – but if you could swing me any money for a shrink, I’m sure that it will come in handy down the line. We’ll see what we can do, he says. I never hear from him again.
Back in my California dorm apartment in 2010, a bunch of us are hanging out or doing homework or some combo of those things – we’re fairly nerdy, so they tend to overlap. The green light on my black Macbook, the one my grandparents generously bought me for a high school graduation present, starts blinking for no reason. I notice it immediately because I notice things immediately; it’s not often something catches me by surprise. I click around and check to see whether I left a photobooth or video program open – this is the light that goes on automatically whenever the camera’s in use – but no, nothing’s on; no reason for it I can see. I click around a bit more, do some impromptu troubleshooting online – I’m no computer whiz, but I can Google with the best and rest of them – and I start to get this feeling.
Someone’s watching me,” I tell my boyfriend-at-the-time. “Someone’s got control of my computer camera.”
“Someone’s watching me,” I tell my boyfriend-at-the-time. “Someone’s got control of my computer camera.” It isn’t anything I’ve found on the internet that says that specifically yet, just sort of that the stuff I am seeing just doesn’t line up. I’m in the middle of my homework for an upper division criticial theory class where I’m learning to analyze and think about what parts of any story are not there, and also, like I said, I’m overly imaginative. We shut the laptop for the night but it’s too late; already my ease has been permanently interrupted.
Over the next few days I troubleshoot a little harder and find I’m getting error messages related to the camera not working. “Your camera is stuck,” one reads. “Try putting your computer near steam – like a shower – to loosen it up and clear it out.” That’s when my red flag turns to red alert. Again, I’m not what I’d call computer savvy, but I’m also not an idiot. The next day we take my Macbook to the Genius Bar at the Brea Mall and the way the Apple employees get shifty confirms what I’ve been thinking. The first guy I talk to talks to another guy who talks to another guy who talks to another guy who eventually brings out what seems like the big boss. No one’s trying to sell me anything, and they all look very serious, especially for people who are usually so chill about their jobs. They’re muttering a lot, but eventually they begin explaining to me what they’ve found: alien software called Camcapture that activates the camera and takes hundreds and hundreds of pictures at a time, possibly video as well. Camcapture has only been on my laptop a few days and already there are folders and folders and folders of pictures. The Genius Bar employees, who smell a lawsuit from a mile away, don’t bother going through the files – they just show me the location on my hard drive – but are quick to clean and bag their kill.
“We’re going to replace your hard drive free of charge,” the big boss says. “We’ll give you back the old one, and we can’t say much, but we recommend you go to the police.”
The semester of my senior year has just begun and already things are exciting. Some college kids have been having run-ins with the cops at parties for years now, but I go to a private Christian college, and I’m an honors student athlete – this isn’t to brag, this is just to say I’m nerdy, focused, sort of anxious, and make no free time for fun and games. Whatever this camera hacker is aiming for, it’s safe to say he ain’t getting Spring Break: Tijuana. The first time I step into the Campus Safety office, I feel like a virgin at Planned Parenthood. I don’t know what I’m getting into but I know I need help. My boyfriend-at-the-time is still in the picture somewhere but my subconscious wrote him off the second that he doubted me and I don’t recall his being heavily involved from here on out. This point in my life, I see now looking back, marks the beginning of my hunt, deep down inside, for men of action, people who can help me where and when it counts.
At Campus Safety, a portable add-on to the Student Union building, I met my first real hero: Chief John. He teaches the RADS (Rape Aggression Defense Skills) class (which in hindsight I really should have taken, but when these things are happening to you you don’t know their long term effects on your trust and self esteem) and has a picture of himself competing for the long jump in some important international competition in his office. He is tall and I’m nervous and intimidated but I manage to explain my story, touting my hard drive and my paperwork from the Genius Bar employees to ensure credibility. Chief John knows a lot of things, and one of them is that someone else probably knows computers better. Another of them is that an entire other slew of problems could ensue in the event that such a crime occurred – or is occurring – at the hands of a person employed by the school. He takes me to the staff member he trusts most in the school’s IT department, someone higher up in the ranks than the guys at the helpdesk. At this point, the level of stiltedness and secrecy first initiated by the Genius Bar employees multiplies. What was a hush-hush thing between a college kid and a few corporate computer technicians is now a potential private school PR disaster. No one is exactly sure what’s going on yet, but nobody wants crime blood on their hands.
So what is the crime exactly? Naked pictures, even though no one is saying it, a fact for which I don’t realize how grateful I am until one of the young cops they call in once I decide to press charges and take the situation outside campus jurisdiction shows up all a-swagger:
“Let’s see the pictures,” he says, pointing at my computer in Chief John’s office. “You say this guy’s taking naked pictures, so show us the pictures.”
At this moment, I couldn’t think or talk because my head was full of a million little versions of myself just standing there facepalming. Throughout the entire campus investigation process, everyone had acted with incredible decorum and grace: the small IT team that assembled was able to dig through my hard drive and figure out what went down how and when without ever opening a single image file. They’d come up with the name of the potential perpetrator – relievedly for all campus authorities involved, someone not employed by the helpdesk or the school at all – another student, someone who lived right underneath me, someone I don’t remember ever having spoken to at all save for possibly a passing hello at some apartment mixer. All that was in really question was whether or not the perpetrator had physical access to my computer or performed the violation wirelessly (this was, again, in 2010, which in Bluetooth terms was light years ago – when wifi was abundant but wireless interaction between users was only getting off the ground. The assumption was initially that someone would have had to manually place the Camcapture software on a person’s laptop, but my latest understanding was that my school’s IT team’s investigation found that to be incorrect – someone could have accessed my computer wirelessly). For something so serious and invasive, I never once in these few weeks felt a tiny bit unsafe. In fact, between the whole adrenaline of the situation, the talent of the IT employees, and the leadership of Chief John – having a mission, a project, a role, a problem to solve – I’d felt engaged, empowered, and protected. Everything had been so technical and clean that, to that point, I hadn’t even realized the extent of the reality of what had been done to me. It’s amazing what your soul can stand when what’s bothering you’s invisible, but when a cop is badgering you for compromising evidence it all breaks down.
I like to think that this is where it all began: the years of acting out, of risky sexual behavior, of finding myself in situations of questionable or little safety. But those things might have happened anyways, because of who I was. But who I was was also innocent, and when you mess with innocence some weird and hard things happen. I end up calling a women’s resource center years later for a bunch of other reasons. The therapist I get assigned to is wonderful and that nerdy, focused student in me comes in handy – I listen and take note and we knock out all the heavy stuff up front, but somehow we keep circling back to this. This moment, this incident, this season, this time period in September 2010 wherein, in almost exactly 30 days, my trust in everybody and myself began to get uprooted.
When I tell this story in person, especially to newer friends, I like to skip quickly through that error-message-shower part. It’s part of the drama, part of the shock: how stupid, no wonder this guy got caught, what idiot would put their computer in the shower? There are easier ways to see naked girls; doesn’t he know porn exists? When I tell this story in person, this is where I like to make jokes instead – damn, if I’d had known someone was taking naked pics of me, at least I could have made some money off it, set up a digital tip jar or charged by the minute or something. Indeed, empowered and in-business sexuality goes a long way to cover up what’s most embarrassing for me about the entire situation: that when I got those error messages at first, I took my laptop into the shower along with me. That that idiot is me.
Sitting in Chief John’s office with the badgering police man, I racked my brain about this. I tried to remember: did I actually take my clothes off? It would have been efficient, to just de-steam your laptop when you’re rinsing off after a workout – I might have done that. Was it just a sports bra? What underwear would I have been wearing? Did I face the laptop to a wall or corner of the counter? Was it looking at the mirror? I combed through every memory of the past several days, trying to remember exactly when and where my Macbook might have been open over the past week or so, trying to figure out just what this guy had maybe seen. Had I compromised my roommates? I wanted to be helpful, easy to work with, quick to show evidence, able to move the case forward. But I wasn’t certain what was in those files – and I wasn’t sure I needed to be to know that I’d been violated. Why did it matter what the pictures looked like if someone was invading my privacy? What about this was the naked part and what was just the software, data? What was something else entirely? Chief John and the IT team sensed something – either my discomfort or the police officer’s unnecessary demands – and swung the discussion in such a way so as to move the case forward without this young guy with a badge having to see pictures of me at my worst: in a standard college dorm apartment bathroom in my underwear or towel putting a piece of fancy electronic equipment near hot water because I’m frustrated, confused, and scared.
In telling this story, the “naked pictures” part is usually the biggest hook – it’s old news that sex sells. It’s a nice story to pull out when I want easy attention or validation, but over the years I’ve found it just continues and compiles that ugly feeling of being objectified, which, as a woman in 2017, I’m fighting every day enough already. What’s been really challenging for me about this, though, is this central mindfuck: why, when I’m pretty certain someone’s trying to violate me, would I act in such a way as to enable or assist them? If a strange person follows you home and asks to come in with you as you shower, it’s pretty clear that’s not okay. But what if you don’t see this person? What if he has an invisibility cloak on and doesn’t make a noise? What if the strange person manages to turn into or dress himself as something essential and basic that you use on a regular, daily basis – a hairbrush, a hamper, a laptop computer, say – and he sits there on the counter every time you bathe, and watches you undress, step into the tub, pour soap onto a loofah, rub in between your legs and underneath your arms? Isn’t that still not okay? It gets convoluted quickly, and while I grew up with plenty of messages about avoiding explicitly bad things – strange men in white vans, people trying to touch your private parts – I didn’t hear a lot about what to do when things seemed sort of almost normal.
A few weeks after they arrested the student living in the apartment underneath me – Are you in class right now? the text from my RD said. Maybe don’t come back to the apartment for a while, they’re making the arrest today – my friend’s mom passed away. I drove to Northern California and back twice in a week – another hometown friend and I had midterms back in SoCal that we couldn’t miss – and all of it was awfuller than hell, but somewhere in me I was deeply happy to be around people who I didn’t have to explain anything to, people who I loved. The situation I was going through at school, plus the fact I wasn’t supposed to talk about it, was isolating and secretive. It felt good, despite the endless pits in all our stomachs, to share in grief, even if mine would never be anything compared to what my friend was experiencing. People were real and concrete and they mattered and it broke my heart that bad things happened to them, to me, to us.
Perhaps most disturbing about what happened to me is the tip of the iceberg of the world it represents. You know a black market exists – it’s particularly good for making jokes about selling your kidneys on when you’re low on cash – but it’s not often you as a pretty normal person have to deal with it. When I researched the type of thing that had happened on my Macbook, I learned that there was a whole network of people out there who hack into computers and wirelessly control and mess with people using an umbrella group of malware software known as RAT – “remote access Trojan.” It’s often a first step in coercing someone into sex trafficking – a perpetrator takes nude pictures of a victim, then threatens to share them with parents or the public unless the victim continues to go along with the perpetrator’s demands. Other times, I learned, RAT perpetrators were just plain annoying: using computers to make fart sounds and laughing from a distance as they watched their victims – “slaves,” as they were called in some communities – look all bothered and confused. RAT perpetrators bought and sold and traded slaves on black market websites and message boards, just like any old eBay item. And just like any old eBay item, the slave – the victim, a person just like me – had no idea.
It’s often a first step in coercing someone into sex trafficking – a perpetrator takes nude pictures of a victim, then threatens to share them with parents or the public unless the victim continues to go along with the perpetrator’s demands.
The worst part about all crime is that it is dehumanizing. We are reduced from the complicated spirits that we truly are down into a few pictures, a few panicked decisions, a few counts against the California Penal Code. In this way we become objects. In this way I relate to the guy who lived beneath me who I never really met who somehow – wirelessly or not, it remains a point of confusion and discrepancy between my understanding and the Orange County District Attorney’s press release – did this thing to my computer and to me.
In 2010, I stopped trusting men, myself, and all electronic devices. This is not to say I haven’t been using any of those things heavily. I’ve been operating off a few assumptions: one, that most dudes will never truly believe anything I ever have to say or help me with anything important regarding my safety or well being (besides the Chief Johns of the world – but those are few and far between, and even if you find one there’ll always be some young buck bald cop to come and misinterpret things again); two, that I might be inadvertently doing something to make a given situation worse; and three, that anything electronic is recording my image and sound constantly and sending it to several spy networks. This is an exhausting and a crippling way to live, especially when you want to email your coworkers and bosses, stay in touch with family and friends, try to fall in love someday, and get on with your life in general. And I do.
Ironically, I got my first smartphone shortly after this incident occurred – an iPhone 4 in a matte blue case. It was sort of a present for having gotten through a trying time, it was my turn for an update on the family plan, and it definitely opened up the level of immediate handheld distraction that I needed to cope with a traumatic incident. But more importantly, it was an unspoken decision to not let the tools win. To keep what’s good and useful to us around and in our lives, even if it isn’t perfect, even if it’s full of weaknesses and vulnerabilities. To get on with our lives in general, to listen to our guts, to use our hearts and minds, to go to the green light that tells us something’s on and live.
MELISSA GUTIERREZ is an artist and writer based in Northern California. Find her on Twitter @mmgutz.