Police have pursued — recklessly, in some recent cases — the creators and senders of underage sexts. Parents have cringed over every new teen sexting scandal. And disapproving puritans the nation over have tut-tutted the women, and sometimes men, whose compromising photographs end up posted online for prying eyes.
There can be no doubt about it: sexting is a risky, compromising, indiscreet business. But despite that, studies suggest that one in five adult cellphone-users have done it — which is a solid argument, we think, for tut-tutting less and educating more. After all, sexting isn’t just the province of the young and reckless: According to Pew Research, 34 percent of adults aged 25 to 34, and 22 percent of adults aged 35 to 44, have received sexts, too. So if you’re going to sext, which you are, you might as well do it safely.
The problem with sexting
Leaving aside the potential moral/legal/etiquette problems with sexting, of which there are admittedly many, digital nudes suffer two main privacy problems. First off, unlike physical pictures, they’re endlessly easy to copy, save and spread. Second — and this is obvious — they’re immediately and personally identifiable. Even if your face isn’t, ahem, in the photo, other information about you, like your cellphone number, is probably tied to it.
That means sexters have two methods to protect their photos: Make them unshareable, or make them anonymous.
Many attempts have, famously, been made at the former. Snapchat, the app that makes photos “self-destruct” after a few seconds, was a popular haven for sexters before someone discovered that screenshots could be taken secretly, without notifying the sender. CoverMe — a more complicated, more adult, and more secure play on the same concept — suffers from similar problems. The app will encrypt phone calls and text messages, destroy messages after they’ve been read, and even recall messages you regret sending — but, as the company warns repeatedly in its FAQ, “CoverMe cannot prevent the user on the other side from taking screenshots of a message, taking a photo or scanning their screen.”
In other words, screenshots are the sexter’s Achilles heel. Whatever other steps you take, there is no technical way to prevent someone from screenshotting your sexts.
So that brings us to solution #2: plausible deniability, or what I’m respectfully terming “the Anthony Weiner rule.”
The Anthony Weiner rule
Then-Congressman Weiner made a very big mistake when he sent a sexually explicit photo to a supporter in Washington state in 2011. There was nothing in the photo to suggest it belonged to Weiner. But because he sent it from his Twitter account, there was little ambiguity on that point.
Repeat after me: If you can’t prevent people from spreading your nudes, the next-best thing you can do is prevent them from ever knowing said nudes belong to you.
This is, unfortunately, a complicated process. Start with the obvious: Never include your face in the photo. Make the background nondescript. Cover or omit distinguishing features, like birthmarks and tattoos.
From there, you need to anonymize the photo file itself. All photos, even ones taken on a smartphone or tablet, are embedded with information about how, when and where the photo was taken. This is called EXIF data, and you want to strip it from any photos you may need to deny ownership of in the future. On a Windows computer, that’s as easy as uploading your photos, opening the “properties” window, and clicking the link that says “remove properties and personal information.” (More details on that process here.) On a Mac, you can use the free software ImageOptim — it will also, as an added bonus (!), make your file sizes smaller.
At this point, you should have a sexy, disembodied photo that (a) is not visually identifiable as you and (b) includes no incriminating EXIF data. Now — if you’re really still serious about this — it’s time to send the thing.
Download CoverMe or another app that anonymizes your text messages, let the subject of your affections know — verbally — that they’re about to receive a message from you, and sext to your heart’s content, secure in the knowledge that. should the relationship sour and your partner reveal an irresponsible/vindictive streak, you are at least (kind of) protected. Again, this won’t prevent screenshotting or copying, and there’s nothing technically stopping your partner from spreading your nudes far and wide. But at the very least, no one will ever be able to conclusively tie them to you — and really, in this frightful sext-scandal age, that’s kind of the best you can hope for.
If all of this sounds like too much work, of course, there is another alternative. Remind yourself that naked mirror selfies are rarely flattering. Then keep them to yourself.