The celebrity nudes hacking scandal is a good reminder that a "just say no" approach isn't going to stop anyone from sexting anytime soon.
This issue isn't a story about "right" or "wrong" ways of thinking about privacy -- it's a wake-up call about security and sexuality.
However, this could have been a story about any app, or any of a zillion privacy breaches in the past couple of years.
This issue isn't a story about "right" or "wrong" ways of thinking about privacy -- it's a wake-up call about security and sexuality. ... The amount of private data theft going on right now is insane.
The amount of private data theft going on right now is insane.
Until the online revolution, our private spaces were our bedrooms and bathrooms, our homes, sex clubs, our phone calls and our inner fantasy worlds.
Now, our private spaces for adult playtime include texts, emails and direct messages to trusted friends or family members, and especially photos. But that's only true if we really trust the person we share them with.
The problem we face now is that not everyone understands or agrees what constitutes a private space online. Online, private spaces include our email inboxes, chat rooms, IRC, social media profiles and their not-public messaging systems (Twitter DMs, Facebook chat), dating websites, message boards. Private space now includes all the places that our personal information resides.
It’s not just celebrities who've had to deal with a disaster after racy photos of them went public. In one instance, a Christian schoolteacher lost her job in 2013 after nude selfies of her were stolen off her phone, and linked with her name.
In the same year, a female firefighter in Manchester (UK) lost her job for posing in lingerie for a shutterbug friend – even though her male firefighter co-workers had posed for racy firemen calendars.
This stuff happens to guys and people of all genders, too – but not as much as it happens to women. It happens to us a lot, because our gender makes us a target. Being "online while female" isn’t fair, but it’s a fact.
People do evil things. Websites and apps get maliciously hacked. Creeps steal our purses and keep our ID cards. What could happen to men is bad, but it carries a far smaller risk of pervasive, disruptive or violent targeting than it does for women.
The sad fact is that women have more reasons to be concerned about online privacy than men do, because women are at greater risk for physical violence, and women are directly targeted more often.
This scandal has been a green light for prudes and people who like to shame women for expressing and exploring our sexuality on our own terms. Of course, they're saying we shouldn’t take nude selfies at all if we don't "want" this to happen to us, as if taking a photo of ourselves naked is some twisted way of asking to be punished for it.
In the celebrity nudes aftermath this week I've seen tweets -- even from security professionals -- saying things like, "she shouldn't have spread her legs for an iPhone."
What BS. As if we deserve to lose our jobs, our friends, custody of our kids, our personal safety, our emotional well-being, or our mental health because we did what lots of people do voluntarily on Twitter every week (or what a million creepy dudes do on Tinder every day with their own "dick pics"). That’s stupid and just plain wrong.
When someone takes our personal photos and posts them online, it's not a joke.
It is a violation. It drives some women -- especially young women -- to suicide.
Suggesting that the violation of our consent is our fault is harassment.
Violating a woman's consent by publicizing intimate photos of her damages her professional (or school) life, increases her vulnerability to sexual violence, causes emotional harm, ruin her reputation, and it sends the message that targeted individuals are inferior, sexual objects.
These acts communicate to the world that it's okay to devalue us, and invites others to participate in harassing, humiliating and hurting us.
Make the Internet wear a condom
This whole thing is a wake up call for each and every one of us who have trusted our most intimate aspects of privacy into the hands of companies like Apple, Google and Yahoo -- companies that take our consent away with their Terms when we sign up.
Humans are going to do things like take compromising photos no matter how much they're shamed not to, so why can't we collectively admit this and demand better security from companies like Apple?
We all know that Steve Jobs hated porn so very much that he banned anything erotic from Apple's app store forever and ever, so does that mean they'll care any more or less about taking steps to specifically protect intimate photos ripped from a woman who's not a celebrity?
Or will Apple just quietly fix another security problem, and pretend like a lot of women weren't just completely violated because Apple might've made security an afterthought on a couple of their products?
The real answer is to do something conservative sex hysterics can't face, which is admitting that people are going to do this, and giving them information about safer ways to do it so that they can mitigate any damage if they get hacked (and their consent gets taken away).
Here are ten steps in the right direction:
1. A popular app or megacorporation isn't necessarily safe. On Snapchat, anyone can actually save your "disappearing" photos. Don't trust your sensitive pics to any apps; most are made poorly and leak your privacy like there’s no tomorrow. Even apps from the biggest companies or from the most trusted app stores should be considered suspect.
2. Put your phone on lockdown. Activate the password lock on your phone, laptop and tablet. Never sign in on someone else’s phone, computer or tablet -- your login information can be recorded if they've been hacked.
3. Delete it for real. Don’t just throw your old phone, tablet or computer in the trash. In 2014, a Sprint worker was caught sending around nude photos off of a customer’s phone, and it was one she turned in as a trade-in when getting a new phone. Before you dispose of a computer, get rid of all the personal information it stores. Use a wipe utility program to overwrite the entire hard drive. You’ll look in the Settings menu for terms such as "erase all content and settings," "backup and reset" or "factory reset."
4. Don’t open files, click on links, or download programs sent by strangers: this is the most common way malicious hackers get "into" your phone or computer and steal your photos. Getting you to click on fake links, or visit a realistic copy of a website, is one way criminals transmit viruses to your computer or phone. Once you do the action of clicking, it can actually trigger an invisible function where a virus is put on your computer that steals your passwords.
5. What if instead the link is in a text message? It’s a text; how can a text hurt your phone? Texts open a link up in your mobile browser, which can cause just as much harm with password-stealing malware as in your computer’s browser. Mobile browsers are subject to the same sorts of bugs, and it’s possible to spoof a mobile website as well.
6. Beware of using public Wi-Fi. If you snap that panty shot in the nightclub's bathroom and send it over the Wi-Fi, you're allowing the photo to travel through a connection that could have a malicious hacker scooping up anything people are sending.
7. Don’t link major accounts. Some apps want you to put your Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, and other accounts into one account through their app. So if someone hacked into that, they’d have access to what's in all those accounts. And think twice before linking important stuff like Google with Apple.
8. Tape over your webcam. We women are worth more on the black market for seedy things like hacked webcam access, which is way more common than you think.
9. Keep your sex life separate: If you, or anyone you engage in adult activities with takes intimate photos of you, use a "burner" phone. Tie it to an email address that is in no way connected with your everyday life. Keep sensitive files stored offline.
10. Don't send intimate images at work or school. Your workplace or school is monitoring your internet use and emails on its Wi-Fi network, and it’s legal – so don’t do anything private, or sensitive in nature (like banking) on a work or school network. In most countries, employees have little if any privacy protection from monitoring by employers.
If you enjoy sex or explore sexually using technology, it’s your own experience. Only you should be able to decide what it means. Only you get to decide if you think it was a good or bad thing to do for yourself.
Just as importantly, you should get to decide if that experience -- whether it's sharing intimate photos, talking dirty by phone or in voice chat, sexting, having any kind of online sex or just disclosing something on a sexual topic -- gets shared with anyone else.
Telling victims that they "shouldn’t have done it" or "what did you expect" is pointless. Instead of blaming and shaming, how about some information people can really use to help them make the decisions that are right for them, and equipping them with tools to mitigate, minimize and even possibly avoid damage if something goes wrong?
Intimate photos of us girls, ranging from swimsuit shots and selfies with cleavage, to the photos and videos that are only meant for the eyes of the person we trust in the hands of someone who doesn’t care about us or our safety, or worse – someone who gets off on hurting women – is disastrous, no matter how proud we are of our bodies, how sex-positive we are, or how comfortable we are with being sexy and strong at the same time.
Remember: Wanting to keep your private information and your private life private means that you have something worth protecting.
Notes and disclosure: Most of these tips are in my book The Smart Girl's Guide to Privacy, as well as further guidance and resources for surviving extreme privacy violations such as the ones discussed in this article. I am also an Advisor for Without My Consent, a non-profit organization that helps women who are victims of revenge porn find support and legal paths to justice.