Zombie Selfies and Data That Won’t Stay Deleted

So a prevalent theme of selfie discourse relates to danger – selfie-takers presented as doing dangerous things in the pursuit of the perfect image or selfie-taking shown to be regulated by chance or by humans in ways that make it dangerous. But this week emerged a new danger, in the form of selfies that won’t stay deleted and can therefore return to haunt the hapless selfie-taker – zombie selfies, if you will.

Internet security firm Avast bought 20 secondhand phones from eBay, and found that even on devices that had been wiped using the factory reset option, there was still an awful lot of data left over. Avast found that:

 “of 40,000 stored photos extracted … more than 750 were of women in various stages of undress, along with 250 selfies of what appears to be the previous owner’s manhood. There was an additional 1,500 family photos of children, 1,000 Google searches, 750 emails and text messages and 250 contact names and email addresses.”

This news story is interesting in that it was repeatedly reported in a way that framed selfies as the most volatile and therefore newsworthy type of data. Headline after headline referenced  the dreaded prospect of “naked selfies” being released, unwittingly, into the public domain:

‘Factory wipe’ on Android phones left naked selfies and worse, study finds – The Guardian 11th July 2014
Naked selfies extracted from ‘factory reset’ phones – BBC News 11th July 2014
‘Wiping’ Android phones does NOT delete your naked selfies – The Daily Mail 9th July 2014

Snapchat has demonstrated in the past the considerable problems that stem from deleted photos being anything but deleted – and, if you ask me, the even greater ‘problem’ of claiming to create a technology that protects people, but that makes them susceptible to victim-blaming and humiliation when it doesn’t work. But this news story takes selfie-panic, and selfie-disgust, in a new direction.

Firstly, the story focuses on the selfies that the researchers found, adding almost as an afterthought all the emails, texts and contacts that were also retrieved in huge quantities. Not to mention the fact that there were photographs of children on the phones, which one might expect would cause considerable alarm. A few years ago, this story would have been reported in terms of the potential for identity theft which these phones represented. But attention has shifted within popular news discourse to focus on the selfie, using it as a kind of modern folk-devil to symbolise a range of social problems and anxieties.

Secondly, the prospect of ‘naked selfies’ that cannot be deleted recalls other, much older forms of social stigma that cannot be removed. Rather than approach digital technologies as offering something liberatory and fun, we are encouraged instead to view every act of photography as a potential burden that can mark us forever, the shame lingering long after we had hoped to eradicate it. This is simple fear-mongering, evident in The Daily Mail‘s assertion that wiping phones does not delete your selfies. The ‘you’ referred to is both assumed to take naked selfies, and chastised for doing so, the fear of shame being used as a means for curbing behaviour.

The not-so-subtle subtext of this story is that the limitations of technology are to result in limitations in our own photographic practice. This recalls Eric Schmidt’s laughable statement that “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”.  If you don’t want everyone to see your naked selfies, then judging by this story, you must never take them at all. If we, as users, cannot ensure our own safety through doing what we assumed would wipe the phone, then extra preventative steps are needed.  Because if naked selfie-taking is not ‘safe’, or any behaviour one might assume, then presumably it should not be done at all.

Of course this is an absurd limitation on personal freedom, and conceptualises things in simplistic terms of safe / not safe. One cannot stay indoors every day for fear of what might happen outdoors, and the same applies here. Instead of presenting selfie-taking as something to be feared, and as an uncontrollable monster, we need a reframing of the conversation, that conceptualises data breaches such as this without resorting to shaming. But that would require a shift in the perception of selfies, away from corrosive notions of embarrassment or disgrace, towards an acceptance that – gosh!- some people like to take photos of themselves. I’m not going to hold my breath, though.

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