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Sharing sensitive pictures

Published onDec 22, 2019
Sharing sensitive pictures
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There are plenty of people out there ready to tell you that on the internet, nothing ever goes away. They’ll tell you that if you post intimate pictures of yourself, you’re at fault and responsible for whatever happens next.

You may be surprised to learn that in many places, the law says they’re wrong. The internet makes it painfully easy for anyone to re-share anything, against our will. But consent is still your choice. It is not true that “if you put it out there, you deserve what you get.”

Your intimate photos and videos are yours. They belong to you. If you share a nude picture with one person, you are consenting for that one person to see it. Not all of that person’s friends, and not the entire internet. No matter what anyone says.

You certainly wouldn’t be the first person in history to take intimate photos; there is a long history, even before photography, of images of nude bodies! And there shouldn’t be shame in it. Oftentimes, adults try to shame teenagers, or men try to shame women, about these pictures. But this is something that’s been going on for generations. (Don’t believe me? Remember that once upon a time, most people had to get someone else to chemically develop photos from their cameras… so ask your elders if they ever had a friend who worked at an old-school photo-development shop, and what photos they saw there.)

Even if you want to share intimate photos publicly, that is your choice. As the Safer Nudes project points out (that link is not safe for work), it can be the spark for important discussions about our bodies, desires, and rights. Read on for tips from them and from legal organizations that can help if your images have been shared against your will.

If you want to stay safe while sharing intimate photos

  • Avoid apps like WhatsApp, Facebook, or iMessage that show your phone number or name next to your pictures. If someone takes a screenshot and shares it with a friend, your number or name goes right along with the picture, so anyone who sees it could tell it’s you.

  • Consider taking pictures which don’t show your face, tattoos, identifying marks like scars or birthmarks, or backgrounds that could be traced back to you. Plenty of different angles can be hot…

EXIF data, the information that is part of every photo, could be used to identify where you took the photo, and possibly find you. So the next part of staying safe is removing it from photos you take:

If you’re worried about leaving a trail of intimate photos or videos in your browser history

you’ll want to keep your browser history clean. If you’re using a browser to look at other people’s not-safe-for-work stuff, start up your chat in private (aka incognito) browsing mode, which is available on most browsers. As it happens, these are the same tips for if you want ads to stop tracking you, so look there for instructions.

Close the private window when you’re done. This will ensure you don’t have any embarrassing slips where you accidentally go back to the same page or you’ve left the window up and it shows up when you’re, say, doing a presentation in front of classmates or colleagues (I’ve seen it happen!)

Be aware that this will NOT make images YOU post go away. It doesn’t clean up images you share, post on social media, or download.

If you’re worried about leaving a trail of photos or videos on your device

you’ll want to securely delete those files from your devices. Just emptying the trash won’t do it—on most devices, “deleting” a file just tells your device to ignore the location where that file used to be. If the device never writes over that file, it’s still there.

On Windows, you’ll need to install an app to completely delete files. BleachBit is one option, and here’s a number of other apps for secure deletion.

Macs have made it more complicated to securely delete files in recent years. According to MacWorld, the only way to do it now is to put the files in the trash, then open the trash, select one (or many) files within it, hold down the Control button while clicking them, and selecting Delete Immediately. The files will be totally gone, so be sure this is something you want to do to all of the ones you’ve selected.

If you’re sharing intimate photos via a chat app

you may want to switch apps. Many apps keep data even if you’ve deleted it. Even Snapchat, which made its name with “disappearing” messages, may keep snaps around longer than you think.

Signal and Wire are two apps that encrypt your information as it is sent between you and the person you’re messaging. Both of them give you the option to automatically delete messages after a certain period of time. But ultimately, there is no guarantee that any app can stop someone from saving your images. Not even if, like Signal, it stops people from taking a screenshot of the image. There’s nothing stopping someone from pulling out a camera, pointing it at the screen of the device you’ve sent the images to, and taking a picture of that before the message “expires.”

If intimate photos of you have been leaked

Follow these steps from Without My Consent if you want to build a case to get the information taken down and bring the person who did it to justice.

There are legal aid organizations dedicated to protecting people whose photos have been leaked without their consent. Lawyers who understand this subject well are ready to help you restore your dignity, reputation, peace of mind, and control over your decisions about sharing your image.

In New York City, DayOne protects younger victims of revenge porn and other online forms of dating violence.

The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI)has a hotline for people whose intimate images have been shared against their will, and a state-by-state list of US lawyers who offer low- or no-cost assistance to victims of these crimes.

CCRI also has a list of legal resources available to victims in Australia, Brazil, Israel and Palestine, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the UK.

If you are feeling overwhelmed or upset

Without My Consent has tips on coping with the emotional effects of suffering through revenge porn or other leaks of your sensitive information. Chayn also has tips on dealing with stress.

If you’re feeling unsure

A lot of the time we may feel unsure about whether we have a right to even complain about our images being spread, or whether the person spreading them is in the wrong. The people attacking us use our images to hold on to some kind of power over us. If you’re feeling like unsure whether you’re at fault, take a look at Take Back The Tech. If someone is threatening you with something using your photos, it’s extortion, and you can take steps to stop it. Online harassment or pretending to be you online is cyberstalking, and many of the tools to stop it are the same ones I’ve shared in the section on your digital security victory garden. Harassment that focuses on your gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, or religion is hate speech; here are some strategies to respond and cope.

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