Sexting and the Illusion of Internet Privacy

Lifestyle / Stories / April 10, 2014
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Kate Woodward

I, like many twenty-somethings out there, consider myself to be about as tech-savvy as I need to be in order to keep up with the interconnected social environment that now defines so much of my existence. I have learned, mostly through trial and error, that social networking in a safe and productive way requires a high level of personal responsibility and self-awareness that I had not previously considered as a teenager. The assault of news segments on both the local and national level that have painted frightening portraits of the gamble involved in sending explicit photo messages, a la Anthony Weiner or Wentzville’s “Missouri Topless Mom”, has (not surprisingly) done little to prevent applications such as Snapchat and the appropriately named dating app Tinder from moving closer to achieving Facebook and Twitter level popularity. As a less than enthusiastic user of these apps, I resolved to reach out to some of my college-aged peers in the hopes that they could shed some light on how and why they use these applications to enrich not only their online personalities, but also that of their “real-life” selves. Here’s to hoping that, in place of ominous news stories, an open and honest dialogue about the riskiness associated with all Internet activity can ultimately lead to more realistic and productive steps taken to ensure the online well being of all users.

image006Snapchat unleashed itself on to the social networking landscape by luring users in with the suggestion that they could send photos of any sort without trepidation since their content would cease to exist after the designated amount of seconds they selected had expired. This feature propelled the app into a state of overwhelming popularity, with a large portion of its participants seeming to conclude that Snapchat had promised a unique form of social networking freedom by eliminating the chance of regret that is so painfully present when exchanging content via other applications. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Snapchat made no such promise. Their privacy policy clearly states that there is no guarantee that your data can, and always will be, deleted altogether. Rather skillfully, they merely suggested it to be the case and left us, the gullible consumers who cannot be bothered to read the fine print, to fill in the blank with what we wanted to believe was the truth. This belief was characterized by the misguided notion that something, once sent into cyberspace, could actually disappear entirely. 

Technological developments ranging anywhere from the iPhone’s ability to take screenshots to the capability of forensics companies to retrieve images that were supposedly deleted have driven us to reevaluate what we had once been so eager to categorize as undisputable truth. Apparently, for a fee of a couple hundred bucks, you can hire someone to dive into the murky depths of your phone’s data and emerge with images that were once sent through Snapchat. This is nothing new, for years divorce lawyers have used such methods in the hopes of collecting incriminating evidence to be used in court. Still, it raises serious questions as to why we, a supposedly tech-savvy society, have allowed ourselves to be fooled by the idea that there is some, or any, security to be had on the Internet.

Inevitably, Snapchat’s disappearing content feature has made the app ideal for sexting (the act of sending sexually explicit photos or messages).

Sam, a female in her twenties, recently began a sexting relationship with a stranger she met through Tinder. I inquired as to how comfortable she has felt making connections on Tinder or sending explicit photos through Snapchat. She responded,

“As a sex positive feminist with no shame, I do things strictly based upon my own desires and my feelings. If I want to send a sexy picture of myself consensually then I’m all about it, but I also keep in mind when I’m being pressured and disrespected.”

 image003Contrary to others I interviewed, Sam does not send images that reveal her face or any other identifying qualities. She explained that she does not send full nudes, nor does she wish to receive them, since doing so would “spoil the surprise” if she were to ever meet and become intimate with the person in the future. Hesitations about the possible repercussions of sexting aside, Sam seems to represent a more evolved social media user. She has assessed the risks involved with participating in risqué online activity and, consequently, has set personal boundaries for what she is and is not comfortable with. For many others, though, the risks far outweigh any perceived benefits.

Melissa, another young woman I spoke to, adamantly protested that “nothing is private online” and she would never recommend Snapchat for sexting. She had used the app for such a purpose only briefly when her relationship had temporarily become long-distance. In light of the media frenzy highlighting the dangers of sending racy photos, Melissa ultimately concluded that it simply was not a risk worth taking.

 image007An interesting pattern began to emerge among the many individuals I interviewed; Tinder was the reoccurring medium through which they were meeting sexting partners or potential dates. Unfamiliar with it, I downloaded the app to my iPhone and began browsing the plethora of reviews online. Consistent in these articles was the accusation that Tinder was superficial, essentially concluding that it was HotorNot.com with a less offensive title.  To use Tinder you set up a radius (up to 100mi), choose the gender you wish to interact with, and wait to be presented with photo after photo of individuals who are within your chosen distance. Depending on their attractiveness or list of interests, you swipe to the left or right to either show you are interested or to rid yourself of their Tinder profile for good. If another user also “likes” you, a match is made and there is an opportunity for the two of you to chat. 

Superficial? Sure. Yet, I have to admit it was strangely empowering to swipe “liked” or “nope” on each incoming photo and feel a jolt of surprise and excitement when you are matched with someone who has “liked” your photo. Naturally, this can present a welcome feeling of validation regardless of whether you wish to pursue any sort of interaction with the person.

Discussing the merits of Tinder with some of my male peers revealed some of its other qualities. Michael explained to me that he has long felt suffocated by the social scene he is currently immersed in and claims that using Tinder is a way to break out of it by gaining exposure to different types of people and social circles. In his mind, the app promises that there is more out there, should you only have the courage to look. Another student described it as the “ultimate time killer” and was quick to point out that, quite simply, it was nothing more than the digital equivalent to finding and meeting women offline. image002

One could argue that we have always social networked in some form or another, but surely we can agree that never have we communicated on such a grand scale. Our iPhones are cluttered with applications, we own tablets to occasionally relieve us from our now over-sized laptops or desktops, and websites like Netflix and Hulu are keeping us online for longer than we may have ever imagined possible (or healthy). Our daily life is intertwined with our Internet presence and the prospect of untangling ourselves seems exhausting and heavy with an array of possible consequences. There was a short window of time during my life in which I entertained romantic notions of being free from any and all forms of social media. Today, breaking up with technology seems not only impossible, but also foolish considering my desire to meet my interpersonal goals.

We can discuss and argue the dangers of sexting or meeting people online until our voices are hoarse – it will not matter. We are now a technology-based society and will do as we please with what we have built. At this point, it seems more beneficial to alter the conversation by discussing how crucial it is that we shatter the illusion of Internet privacy we have held on to so stubbornly. The Internet is no longer the uncharted territory it once was and, in light of this important realization, it becomes clear we can no longer use the excuse of naivety to justify our online behavior.

Like Sam, we must become users who are aware of the risks involved and, in recognizing that the Internet will show us no mercy, tread lightly and stick to predetermined personal boundaries. We want to know that being proactive with our privacy controls before a disaster of parental or workplace magnitude occurs means we have done our part in protecting ourselves. Unfortunately, as we see with a program like Snapchat, relying on an app or website’s security features rarely provides enough in the way of protection. Thankfully, we have grown older and wiser since the dark ages of the early 2000s and are beginning to fully realize the error of our ways.

Anna, the final student I spoke to, simplified the entire issue by saying “The trick is not to be stupid about it.

Perhaps she is right.






Alvin Leifeste




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