Sex & Relationships

How Much Sexting Do Americans Do? Ask the British Surveillance State

A British program called Optic Nerve scooped up the sexually explicit images of an untold number of Americans.

Photo Credit: Kostenko Maxim/

The Guardian recently revealed that a British surveillance program called Optic Nerve had scooped up millions of web cam images. Without the knowledge or agreement of Yahoo (let alone the users), the spy agency copied, collected and analyzed one still and/or moving image every five minutes from Yahoo webcam user chats, including those of an untold numbers of Americans. 

“In one six-month period in 2008 alone, the agency collected webcam imagery—including substantial quantities of sexually explicit communications—from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts globally,” notes the Guardian. 

The Optic Nerve revelations speak to two issues that have received little attention. First, GCHQ employees working on the program seem to have been deeply disturbed by the “explicit” images they analyzed. Second, the program’s findings appear to confirm other research suggesting that a growing number of adults are engaging in sexting, the sending, receiving and sharing of sexual explicit communications.

The total number of “explicit” communications GCHQ snared remains unknown. The Guardian notes that between 3 and 11 percent of the imagery contained "undesirable nudity." Extrapolating from the report, one can project that during the three years in which the program apparently operated, 2008-2010, an estimated 10.8 million images were collected.  

According to the GCHQ report, "Unfortunately… it would appear that a surprising number of people use webcam conversations to show intimate parts of their body to the other person.” It also suggests that such communication has become quite viral. “Also, the fact that the Yahoo software allows more than one person to view a webcam stream without necessarily sending a reciprocal stream means that it appears sometimes to be used for broadcasting pornography."

A recent followup analysis in the UK Mirror attempts to provide some detail to the GCHQ report. Extrapolating from “a sample 50 nude webcam images obtained from Google we worked out the relative frequency with different body parts occur.” Using a 7 percent figure of images containing “intimate body parts,” it projected such images as follows: breasts at 56 percent (1 million-plus images for 6 months), female genitalia at 28 percent (504,000 images), male genitalia at 26 percent (468,000 images) and female “bum” at 12 percent (216,000). For the full three years, the totals likely skyrocketed.

According to GCHQ officials, the "undesirable nudity" in Yahoo’s webcam imagery troubled employees. The Guardian reports that GCHQ “did not make any specific attempts to prevent the collection or storage of explicit images.”

The system also failed to stop these images from reaching the eyes of GCHQ staff. An internal guide cautioned prospective Optic Nerve workers, "there is no perfect ability to censor material which may be offensive. Users who may feel uncomfortable about such material are advised not to open them." It blamed this shortcoming on the current “naïve” state of pornography detector technology that “assessed the amount of flesh in any given shot, and so attracted lots of false positives by incorrectly tagging shots of people's faces as pornography.”  

The agency apparently sought to come up with a porn blocking or filtering solution but seems to have been unableto make the user interface "safer to use." However, it “did eventually compromise by excluding images in which software had not detected any faces from search results—a bid to prevent many of the lewd shots being seen by analysts.”

Sexting is the 21st century’s first original form of pornography. It originated mostly among young people taking, sending and receiving explicit nude, semi-nude and provocative still images, video clips and/or text-messages of themselves and others. Estimates vary as to the number of teens engaging in sexting, but findings from a number of studies suggest that upward of one in five American young people have engaged in the practice.  

The 2011 outings of a number of male politicians for sexting, most nobably former U.S. Congressmen Anthony Weiner and Chris Lee, precipitated a major political kerfuffle. The GCHQ findings suggest that more and more adults are engaging in the practice.

Two recent research studies, from Pew and McAfee/Intel Security, confirm GCHQ’s findings that sexing is going mainstream.  

Pew, a nonprofit research firm, defines sexting as a “sexually suggestive nude or nearly nude photo or video.” In a 2012 study, it found that 15 percent of adult cellphone owners had received a sext, a sexting message; that 6 percent had sent such a message; and 3 percent had forwarded a sext. It also reported that the level of sexting among adults had not significantly changed since its last survey in 2010.

In a 2013 report, “Love, Relationships and Technology,” McAfee, a computer security-software company, provides more of a snapshot of findings than a coherent analysis. Among its reported findings are:

  • 50 percent of adults have used their mobile device to share or receive “intimate content,” sexting messages;
  • 50 percent of people report storing intimate content on their mobile device;
  • 14 percent of all respondents reported having filmed sexual content on their mobile devices;
  • 16 percent reported sending a sexts to a complete stranger.

The report also reveals just how unsecured most people treat their mobile devices. Key findings include: 38 percent share their phone passwords with another; 40 percent share email login details and bank information; and 27 percent of people don't even lock their phones with a passcode.

When GCHQ’s Optic Nerve program was revealed, senators Wyden, Udall and Heinrich (D-NM) declared: “We are extremely troubled by today’s press report that a very large number of individuals—including law-abiding Americans—may have had private videos of themselves and their families intercepted and stored without any suspicion of wrongdoing.”

The GCHQ program also reveals that a goodly proportion of Internet users are engaging in sexting. Welcome to the new normal.

David Rosen is the author of "Sin, Sex & Subversion: How What Was Taboo in 1950s New York Became America’s New Normal" (Skyhorse, Feb ‘16). He can be reached at [email protected].