Why Some Risk Sending Intimate Pictures to “Strangers” and What It Says About Privacy

It is, as always, an honor and a pleasure to speak with the Co-Op community. Thank you to Danielle for inviting me back and thank yous all around for inviting me onto your desks, into your laps, or into your hands.

My name is Ari and I teach at New York Law School. In fact, I am honored to have been appointed Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy this year at NYLS, an appointment about which I am super excited and will begin this summer. I am also finishing my doctoral dissertation in sociology at Columbia University. My scholarship focuses on the law and policy of Internet social life, and I am particularly focused on online privacy, the injustices and inequalities in unregulated online social spaces, and the digital implications for our cultural creations.

Today, and for most of this month, I want to talk a little bit about the relationship between strangers, intimacy, and privacy.

Over the last 2 years, I have conducted quantitative surveys and qualitative interviews with almost 1,000 users of any of the several gay-oriented geolocation platforms, the most famous of which is “Grindr.” These apps are described (or, derided, if you prefer) as “hook up apps,” or tools that allow gay men to meet each other for sex. That does happen. But the apps also allow members of a tightly identified and discriminated group to meet each other when they move to a knew town and don’t know anyone, to make friends, and to fall in love. Grindr, my survey respondents report, has created more than its fair share of long term relationships and, in equality states, marriages.

But Grindr and its cousins are, at least in part, about sex, which is why the app is one good place to study the prevalence of sharing intimate photographs and the sharers’ rationales. My sample is a random sample of a single population: gay men. Ages range from 18 to 59 (I declined to include anyone who self-reported as underage); locations span the globe. My online survey asked gay men who have used the app for more than one week at any time in the previous 2 years. This allowed me to focus on actual users rather than those just curious. Approximately 68 % of active users reported having sent an intimate picture of themselves to someone they were chatting with. I believe the real number is much higher. Although some of those users anonymized their initial photo, i.e., cropped out their head or something similar, nearly 89 % of users who admitted sending intimates photos to a “stranger” they met online also admitted to ultimately sending an identifiable photo, as well. And, yet, not one respondent reported being victimized, to their knowledge, by recipient misuse of an intimate photograph. Indeed, only a small percentage (1.9) reported being concerned about it or letting it enter into their decision about whether to send the photo in the first place.

I put the word “stranger” in quotes because I contend that the recipients are not really strangers as we traditionally understand the term. And this matters: You can’t share something with a stranger and expect it to remain private. Some people argue you can’t even do that with a close friend: you assume the risk of dissemination when you tell anyone anything, some say. But, at least, the risk is so much higher with strangers such that it is difficult for some to imagine a viable expectation of privacy argument when you chose to share intimate information with a stranger. I disagree. Sharing something with a “stranger” need not always extinguish your expectation of privacy and your right to sue under an applicable privacy tort if the intimate information is shared further.

A sociologist would say that a “stranger” is a person that is unknown or with whom you are not acquainted. The law accepts this definition in at least some respects: sometimes we say that individuals are “strangers in the eyes of the law,” like a legally married same-sex couple when they travel from New Jersey to Mississippi. I argue that the person on the other end of a Grindr chat is not necessarily a stranger because nonverbal social cues of trustworthiness, which can be seen anywhere, are heightened by the social group affinity of an all-gay male environment.

Over the next few weeks, I will tease out the rest of this argument: that trust, and, therefore, expectations of privacy, can exist among strangers. Admittedly, I’m still working it out and I would be grateful for any and all comments in future posts.

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