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Photo protection in the digital age

Posted on January 8, 2014 by Lethbridge Sun Times

“Buyer beware” is a well-worn warning to consumers. In the digital age, an appropriate warning might be, “User beware.”

Internet and social media users might not be completely aware of how easily their personal pictures can get out of their control and wind up on websites they never would have expected, or intended. Privacy experts are trying to raise awareness of the potential dangers of online image theft.

For example, a Canadian Press story in Thursday’s Lethbridge Herald pointed out how a photo of Rehtaeh Parsons, the Nova Scotia teen who died in April after being a victim of cyberbullying, wound up being used in a dating website’s advertising on Facebook. The misuse of the photo sparked an online backlash that prompted the company and Facebook to apologize and withdraw the ads.

Marian Merritt, Internet safety advocate for the security software maker Norton, warns that a photo uploaded to a social network could potentially end up being used in a way the person didn’t intend. “You know from the end-user licences of popular social networks that they do retain the rights to do things with your images,” Merritt said.

Facebook’s manager of privacy and safety, Nicky Jackson Colaco, says the chances of users having an image stolen and used in an ad on Facebook are remote, and that if it should happen, they can click on the Report button and have it resolved. But in cyberspace, a picture can get out of the owner’s hands very quickly. Merritt related her own example of a photo of her daughter taken with the band Arctic Monkeys. The photo was posted on a social network, “which is what you do,” said Merritt. However, the photo has since been reposted numerous times until it “has subsequently ended up on other social media sites many thousands of times, so we have completely lost control of my daughter’s image, and there’s not much we can do about it. And it’s kind of our own fault.”

This from someone whose business is Internet safety. How much more likely is it that the average person could unexpectedly have one of their own images get out of their hands in the cyber universe?

In Merritt’s case, the good news was that it didn’t involve an embarrassing photo. There have been many reported cases where images that people wouldn’t want the world to see — including nude photos — have wound up making the rounds digitally. Fortunately, legislation introduced by the federal Conservatives in November seeks to take action on behalf of Canadians who have had “intimate images” distributed against their will.

As for photos that don’t fit the “intimate images” category, the best defence against having photos used online in ways the pictures’ owners don’t intend is to take whatever precautions are available. Even then, it seems there are no guaranteed safeguards in the modern wild frontier that is cyberspace.

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