(BY: STEVEN PETROW, SPECIAL FOR USA TODAY) – It happened to Lindsey Vonn and Tiger Woods. Miley Cyrus, Katharine McPhee, and Kristen Stewart. These celebs have had photos they thought were private stolen and shared online for the entire world to see.
Of course, athletes and actors aren’t the only ones taking nude photos, but most people expect they’ll stay private or between the two individuals sharing them.
According to research presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in 2015, more than 80% of adults surveyed admitted to sexting —i.e. sharing any sexually explicit content, which includes photos, videos and text messages — in the prior year.
“Sending private photos today is the norm, not the exception,” says Eric Silverberg, co-founder and CEO of the gay dating app, Scruff. “It’s unrealistic to expect people won’t take nude photos in a dating world that starts with the smartphone.”
But some advance planning could certainly make the difference in whether or not your private photos stay that way.
Most of the usual advice to sexters falls into what I’d call pop psychology: Make sure you trust your partner. Agree upon the rules for deleting photos. Be sure your face isn’t in the picture so you won’t be recognized (but scars, tattoos and piercings may do just that anyway).
Whatever. Without a binding contract, what good are these rules when you might not even know the name of your partner or hacker? Or, what will happen if things turn sour? Revenge porn is a real threat.
Ana Homayoun, the author of the just published new book Social Media Wellness, reminded me, “There aren’t any ‘best practices’ for sexting other than not sending explicit photos, and people should realize anything they send out has the potential for a much larger audience.”
This is true. However, you can do some things right now to mitigate your risk. Just like “safe sex” is a misnomer (since condoms and other contraceptives don’t work 100% of the time), safe sexting is better called “safer sexting.”
“Once any personal content is sent, whether it be a photo, video, or chat message, there is no solution that guarantees it will not be screenshotted, downloaded or re-shared,” Scruff’s Silverberg advised. If you’re going to send nude photos—lower your odds of having them stolen, hacked or leaked—by doing any of the following actions:
Make sure you have a strong passcode on your phone. You can use a password manager like Dashlane, LastPass, or LogMeOnce. Strong passwords include numbers, symbols, as well as capital and lower-case letters. The best passwords are at least six characters and don’t reuse the same password on other devices. Ask your partner in crime to do the same. If your phone is left unlocked, stolen, or hacked, it will be harder for the perp to get into your photos with a good password.
If you lose your phone, wipe it clean. First use Find My Phone to locate it, says Eric Vanderburg, vice president of cybersecurity at TCDI, which provides cybersecurity consulting services. “If it is truly gone, be sure to remotely wipe it. iPhone users can do this through iCloud and Android users through apps like Mobile Defense.”
Learn how to delete your photos for real. Did you know that when you delete photos on a cell phone, they don’t actually disappear for 30 days? Yep, it’s true. On an iPhone they’re moved into a folder called “Recently Deleted.” To empty that, you must go into that folder and force delete them. On Android phones use an app like Secure Delete or Android Eraser to permanently delete photos.
Hold off on backing up. I know, I know. Experts are always telling you to back up your devices so that you don’t lose any data. But you’ll want to turn off auto-upload features in PhotoStream, in Settings, if you’re an iPhone user as well as services like Flickr, Google Photos or iCloud Photo Library. After you’ve turned them off, send the sext, delete as noted above, and then restart it. Otherwise, those photos will appear on other devices—or, heaven forbid, in the cloud.
“Many people prefer to keep personal photos in the cloud because we frequently share smartphones with friends and don’t want them to inadvertently scroll past something they shouldn’t see when we show off pics from last weekend,” Scruff’s Silverberg said.
Even if you delete photos properly from your phone you’ll still need to manually delete them from your cloud service. Don’t forget this step because the cloud is the hunting ground for hackers.
One more cloud caution: “You’re not always the only one who has access to your cloud data,” added TCDI’s Vanderburg. Cloud providers may have the ability to archive data to restore it on your behalf, which could also allow a hacker to view your private data.
Snapchat is not foolproof. “Ephemeral messaging platforms like Snapchat are also safer choices for sending personal photos,” Scruff’s Silverberg says. By ephemeral, he means that the photos will disappear after a set number of seconds. But don’t forget that a recipient may capture a screen grab of the sext before it vanishes — or take a photo of it with another device. Safer, yes. Safe, no.
Strip photos of any identifying code or information. Consider this if you’re an advanced tech student: All photos are embedded with data (called EXIF) about when, where, and how it was taken. To make yourself fully anonymous, you want to strip this data from the photo. On an iPhone you can use Viewexif; on an Android device, try PhotoExifEditor.
We are human. We are fallible. We have sexual and emotional needs. Sometimes, we do stupid things. Advance planning isn’t always sexy, but it can make a huge difference in keeping your private photos safe. I’d say that’s time well spent.