Blackmail in the Digital Age

How would one conduct blackmail in the digital age, in which the idea of an ‘original copy’ is meaningless? Carl Pettit considers this theoretical dilemma.

I think about strange things sometimes. Like how to make a body disappear in the center of a major metropolitan area without a car, a saw, or a whole lot of time. Most of my friends laughed at my solutions, although a few of them told me I was “weird” for even entertaining such a possibility. When I explained the problem to my father, his eyes suddenly brightened. He’d been thinking about something very similar. As we keenly discussed how to get rid of a body, and the pros and cons of various methods, my mother’s expressions changed from one of bemusement to mild horror. Apparently the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

I’ve been thinking about another problem recently, which also has criminal overtones. Mind you, my imaginary cadaver was one that I found, but still, it would have looked bad to the police. The dilemma that has been taking up my time of late is blackmail and extortion, and how the advent of the information age has changed the rules of the game, and how that might affect society as a whole.

Blackmail and extortion are similar crimes. One party wrests something (money, a service, cooperation, forced acquiescence) from another party by threatening physical harm (extortion), or the release of damaging information (blackmail). The victim gets the sensitive information back, or remains unharmed in exchange for his or her compliance.

Admittedly, I’ve gleaned most of my information about the underworld from cinema and television, but it seems to me that the art of extortion has evolved. In the past, if you had damaging photos, or an analog recording (film, microfiche, tape) of something someone didn’t want made public, you could blackmail that person for large sums of money. The standard bargain was, “give me the cash, and I’ll give you the original copy, which you can then destroy.” Of course the blackmailer could have made copies, but it would have taken some time. Analog media offered the illusion, albeit a flimsy one, of the ‘original copy.’ Regardless if true or not, the mere belief that you could destroy the evidence against you might motivate you to pay. “Yeah, this jerk is blackmailing me, but maybe he’s an honest blackmailer, and he didn’t make any extra copies … .”

Extortion is merely another type of financial transaction.

I doubt anyone would believe the ‘one copy in existence’ line anymore. A would-be blackmailer could make hundreds of copies, and send the information out to millions in the time it takes you to boil a cup of tea. Criminals and victims alike are aware of this. For blackmail to work in the digital age, potential victims have to accept an extended payment plan. It works for banks and credit institutions. Extortion is merely another type of financial transaction.

The notion of opening up a large bag filled with cash or precious gems is a romantic one, but those days are undoubtedly gone. Instead, blackmail and extortion should be viewed as long-term investments. By lessening the amount of your initial demand, and stringing it out over a period of years, you can set up a steady stream of income, periodically adjusted for inflation, which will see you into your golden years. All you have to do is continue not doing what you agreed not to do: to release the damning information you have, or to carry out a threatened, undesirable action.

It seems the acceptance of the ‘long con’ may have carried over into greater society. In the past, if you worked hard, you could generally count on a decent retirement. If the nation fought a war, that war would eventually end. There was a price to be paid, of course, but there was usually some kind of boon afterward. The pain and sacrifices of WWII were followed by years of prosperity. An autoworker might toil for years in a factory, but could then buy a small house in Florida and play golf for the rest of his or her life. A man being blackmailed would pay up, and then take possession of the information against him and torch it. Put in your time, pay the price, and move on.

Something has changed. The wars of the last decade are the longest the country has ever seen, and will continue on some level for years to come. Workers hold many jobs throughout their lives now, yet many people aren’t certain of their retirement, or even next year. In other words, we have to keep paying, but the endgame isn’t clear.

A nation that gave itself a hug tax cut while troops were on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq should realize that someone, somewhere, is going to have to pay for those costly wars. A blood price has already been extracted, but not so for gold, or at least not all of it. The constant threat is that if we, as a society, don’t send in the troops, our security is at risk. If we don’t support failed institutions (with bailout money) that help finance the government that pays for these wars, our economical system will collapse. I’m not arguing for or against military interventions. That has to be decided on a case-by-case basis. What strikes me as odd, though, is a taxpaying public that embraces massive wartime tax cuts, and then grumbles when it has to bailout (and thus reward) incompetent bankers, yet still pays. There seems to be a massive disconnect between cause and effect here.

If the media mantra, played ad nauseum, “too big to fail” isn’t an extortionist’s wet dream, then I don’t know what is.  

If the media mantra, played ad nauseum, “too big to fail” isn’t an extortionist’s wet dream, then I don’t know what is. The threat was, and continues to be that if a large financial institution (private and for profit) falls, we all fall with it.

This year, billions of dollars will be spent on the presidential race. That’s enough cash to fund a small nation. The money will largely be spent on media campaigns, which are designed to alter how you think, and sway your vote. Your fears, emotions, and prejudices will be played upon, driving you toward one candidate, or away from another. No matter what side of the political spectrum you fall upon, you have to admire the craft and the vast resources of the men and women responsible for shaping your opinions. The digital age offers those who would manipulate you an unparalleled tool. Opinions can be changed with a simple text message, a misconstrued comment, or a moment of candor captured on a cell phone. In a world where so much is recorded, and accessible by millions instantaneously, extortion on a personal and national scale seems like the natural order of things. From bullies uploading photos of their victims, to presidential gaffes bringing down a campaign (or dark promises to unscrupulous donors), we’re all vulnerable. Welcome to blackmail in the digital age.

Read more by Carl Pettit on The Good Life.

—Photo of security scan of iris or retina courtesy of Shutterstock

About Carl Pettit

Carl Pettit is a writer, illustrator and musician whose education and travels have taken him all over the world. When not out exploring, or pondering the universe, he finds time to produce fiction for both adults and children. You can catch up with him on his blog, or twitter.


  1. Valter Viglietti says:

    “The constant threat is that if we, as a society, don’t send in the troops, our security is at risk.”

    But that’s baloney: the more troops you send in a country, the more those people will be pissed off and likely to retaliate.
    Has any war ever won any friend? :roll:

    The problem lies in FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) used as mass propaganda, and the naivete of the people falling for it. A gullible nation is easily manipulated.
    Alas, most people don’t want to face reality (life is hard, costs and consequences), thus they follow the piper.

  2. This highlights the overarching importance of one central tenet to conducting your life: don’t ever do anything you would not want to be recorded.

    The corollary to that tenet: If you do end up breaking that rule, then get out in front of it as swiftly as possible. It may be embarrassing or distasteful or personally galling to eat some pretty nasty crow, but it offers the only possibility of removing the sting of the information that a potential digital extortionist may think they have on you.

    I realize that may be near impossible for some people, especially those who live more in the public eye. It should, however, make everyone more aware of the need to never forget your life may be recorded. It is akin to those who agree to be in a TV show or movie, and then bemoan the fact that they come off looking bad. Don’t forget, when someone else controls the recording, you will almost never have control over how you get edited. Editing can make all the difference between a saint and a sinner.

    Another tenet: Control your information, or it will control you.

    Finally, another bit of homespun wisdom for the digital age: live your private life like you want it to be seen in public (you know, that old “Character is who you are when you are alone?” bromide), but if you do screw up, edit yourself before others do it for you.

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