Online privacy: Photos out of control

Baby pictures, family photos, travel pix, party photos, whatever – there can be far-reaching unintended consequences of posting them online, whether you’re blogging, social networking, or photo- or video-sharing by phone or computer. Take mom and dad bloggers, for example. They post a lot of photos of their families, and their numbers are significant. Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter.com, a parenting portal, estimates that there are 5 million mom bloggers in the US, Advertising Age reports. More needs to be said about what can happen to the photos they post.

One mom blogger’s serendipitous discovery that a photo of her family filled a Prague grocery shop window is a case in point. An old friend was in the Czech Republic and had driven by the shop, Grazie, when he saw the giant photo of Danielle of the ExtraordinaryMommy.com blog, her husband, and two kids (see her post for illustrations).

As of this writing, nearly 360 people have posted comments about the incident, the vast majority of them shocked that it had happened, some suggesting that she get a lawyer (US? Czech?) and sue the shop so her family could make money on this “advertising”! But the value that can be derived from this experience is the reminder that photos and videos are out of control the instant they’re posted online or sent around by phones and other digital devices are good. Even if privacy options are used, people who are allowed access can unthinkingly, sometimes intentionally, copy and paste them elsewhere. It’s also a great reminder that the Web is global, and each country has its own laws about intellectual property and privacy rights.

High res, low res. One smart commenter to Danielle’s post offered a very likely scenario for what happened in her case:

“Go to google. Type in ‘happy family.’ Select search results to display huge files, and there you are on Page 1 of the image results. Here’s the link. Comes from twittermoms.com, not facebook.” Sure enough, a photo with high enough resolution for printing is on that page.

Danielle later wrote that she remembered having posted a very high-resolution version of her family photo in some site other than Facebook, which – when I asked Facebook’s spokesperson Barry Schnitt about this – told me “we have not, are not, and will not sell user content.” Facebook also says, “the rights you give Facebook are subject to your Privacy Settings.” So, through using those settings, if you tell Facebook (and other responsible sites, hopefully) that only your friends can see your photos, it can’t share them with anyone besides those people on your friends list. In other words, take advantage of privacy features!

Another helpful tip to family bloggers: While you’re posting, post only the lowest-possible resolution, ideally the most common on the Web, 72 dpi (some sites, like Facebook, I believe, don’t even allow higher res in order to save space on their servers). That does nothing to stop people from using your photos elsewhere on the Web, but it makes it just about impossible for them to be used in print for commercial purposes, as was the case with Danielle’s photo in Prague. It’s also a good idea to check photo-sharing sites’ Terms of Service to see who has the rights to photos people post in those sites.

Children’s privacy. Now for a more disturbing reminder: about photos he’d posted of his 4-year-old daughter (well-clothed in the images) had been “favorited” in Flickr. He checked the situation out, and here’s what he found: “three pages of favorited photos of preteen girls, most shots in bathing suits or with little clothing. Had I viewed any of these photos individually, isolated from the others, I am sure that this same feeling of disgust would not have come over me. But these photos, viewed together, favorited by some anonymous user, told a very different story.”

Note what he did (it might come in handy): “1. Blocked the user. This means my photos would no longer appear in the list. However, if your photos are viewable to the public, this means they can still be viewed, just not favorited. 2. Contacted Flickr: I reported this user, and within a couple of hours, the user was taken down.” But that wasn’t the end of his story, so check out his post for more.

[Thanks to Anne Bubnic in California for pointing out the "Extraordinary Mommy" incident.]

Related links

* Photos stolen: A 17-year-old who “had photographs taken of herself at the age of 14 stolen and used on the cover of a pornographic DVD without her consent”

* On mom bloggers: Ad Age recently took an in-depth (video) look at how they’re changing the face of media and marketing. The video says mom blogs have altered the marketing practices of some of the country’s largest retailers (e.g., Wal-Mart, which supports 24 major mommy bloggers) and have confronted media companies with unexpected new competition. According to blog publisher BlogHer, 8 million women publish blogs (moms are a subset, of course), 22.7 million read blogs.


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