April 14, 2022

Privacy Tip of the Week: Keep Personal Photos Private

Posted by Rhiannon

Thirty years ago, the idea of always having a camera in our pockets was unthinkable. But today, we’re living in the age of the selfie. There are more than 2.7 billion smartphone users worldwide, or one out of every three people. For every square mile of habitable land on earth, there’s approximately 110 smartphones in the area, and that number doesn’t factor in other camera-enabled devices like tablets and computers.

We celebrate National Selfie Day every year and use our cameras to stay connected with the world at large while taking snapshots of precious memories so we have them forever. However, this normalization of camera use also poses its own risk. By snapping a picture of anything and everything, we don’t stop to think about whether or not we should take that picture. The news cycle is regularly filled with stories about compromising, personal photos being leaked to the public without consent. So how do you keep personal photos private in this digital age?

  • The risks of sharing photos online
  • How do you safely share your photos online?
  • How do hackers put you at risk?
  • Ways to protect photos on your devices

The Risks of Sharing Photos Online

It’s often tempting to share your photos online. If you visit Paris, you want your friends and family to see you enjoying a croissant under the Eiffel Tower. Nights out with friends become documented in online photo albums. Far-away loved ones can watch your kids grow up as if they were right there with you. Unfortunately, every single one of these instances can open you up to threats you’ve probably never even considered.

Vacation Pics Can Result in Robbery

This piece of advice is becoming more and more common but it bears repeating. If you go on vacation, don’t post photos of it online until after you’re home. The average social media user has hundreds of friends and followers on the platforms they use. Even if that number is only a few dozen, who really knows every single person they’re connected with online well enough to say they trust them 100 percent? We all have a few dodgy co-workers and neighbours on our friends lists simply because social media is the easiest way to connect with these people.

Unfortunately, because not everyone on your list is guaranteed to be trustworthy, posting photos of your vacation announces to everyone that your home is currently empty. If the wrong people see it, you may find that you return home to find your precious belongings stolen right out from under you.

Your Photos Can End Up in Places You Don’t Expect

When you post a photo on Facebook, you probably expect that that photo will remain on Facebook. However, the internet works in complicated ways and that may not be the case. For example, a search engine like Google searches the web with bots. These bots compile a list of every accessible website, along with all the content within that website. Content may include things like articles, videos, statuses and, yes, photos. The bots don’t care about your privacy settings (and probably can’t recognize them anyways). As a result, if they come across the photos you share to your social media accounts, the images may be indexed and added to the “Images” tab of the search engine. Once there, anyone can find and use them.

Take a moment and Google your name in an image search. You may be shocked to find what’s there.

Once They’re Out There, They Can Be Used Against You

When you share something online, it’s there forever, even if you think you delete it. Once out there, the photos you post can be used against you in ways you might not expect. For example, many employers now take the time to review a prospective employee’s social media presence. If your privacy settings aren’t as solid as you thought, or your photos slipped through the cracks and wound up on a search engine, you can end up facing problems down the line if any of those photos show you in a poor light. This can cost you the job and you might not even realize it.

In addition, photos with your face in them can be used in identity theft schemes, be added to databases for facial recognition, and more. 

Geotags Give You Away

Many social media platforms allow you to tag your location when you share a photo online, so your followers know where you are and have been. Some platforms may also broadcast your location without you even realizing it. For example, Snapchat found itself in hot water when the photo-sharing platform added a “maps” feature which allowed any user to see where others are in the world at any given time. This feature has since been modified to enable location sharing between consenting users, but nevertheless, the app is still able to broadcast location data to others.

In addition, most photos are posted with “metadata,” which is something hidden to the eye but readable to a computer (and something a person with a bit of know-how can find). Metadata describes the contents of the photo and may also include a geotag, especially if you have location services enabled. This has raised concerns that stalkers and domestic abusers can use this data to harm other users.

Sharing Photos of Your Kids Can Get You Into Hot Water

Many parents love sharing photos of their kids. In fact, this is so common it’s often referred to as “sharenting.” After all, they’re cute and the whole world should know it. However, this practice raises a number of issues. First and most obvious, having photos of your children online typically shows the whole world what they look like, where they live and go to school, and more. Many advocacy groups have warned that this information can result in kidnapping and trafficking.

Beyond the immediate concerns for a child’s welfare, some groups have been cautioning that sharing photos of children to social media actually violates the child’s privacy since they typically don’t, or can’t, give consent to have their photo shared. This means that some children have a digital footprint that is controlled by another person and, if that person doesn’t stop to consider the repercussions, it can end up biting the child in the butt down the road. There have already been instances of identity theft occurring from exactly this, since the thief is less likely to be caught quickly.

Some jurisdictions have begun considering laws that can be put into place to protect children from the threats of sharenting.

How Do You Keep Personal Photos Private Online?

If you’re the kind of person who wants to take online privacy to the max, the safest thing to do is avoid sharing photos online at all. But very few of us want to take privacy to such extremes. Social media platforms rely on an exchange of content to work. If every person in the world refused to share that content, the platforms would become obsolete. 

So, if you want to continue sharing your photos online, how can you do it safer?

  • Start by tightening up your privacy settings. Take a look at the settings on each platform you use and adjust them according to your privacy needs.
  • Prune your list of friends and followers. Keep your friends lists short and allow only your most trusted friends and family members to follow you online. Depending on the platform, you may be able to unfriend them, or you may have to block them first.
  • Make your accounts private. This will give you the opportunity to accept new followers, so you can continue managing your friends list.
  • Think before you post. Consider the ramifications of your photo, both legally (especially when it comes to pictures of your kids), and in terms of your safety.
  • If you’ve already posted a photo and it wound up in a place you don’t want it (like on Google’s search), you may be able to request that the platform remove the image. Google has recently made the process easier to remove photos of minors.
  • Turn off location services and disable metadata if possible. This will prevent extra data from being attached to an image without your knowledge.

What’s the Deal with Hackers?

Often, we only share a fraction of the photos we actually take. Your camera roll is probably chock-full of selfies, pictures of your kids and pets, glam shots of the delicious meal you had last week, perhaps a spicy image or two. Few people consider that these images also pose a threat to privacy. Unfortunately, we’ve created a digital ecosystem ripe for hacking. Our devices are cloud connected and used to navigate the web. If your cloud storage provider suffers a breach, or you accidentally install a virus on your phone, your entire camera roll could be compromised and those photos shared without your consent or even used to blackmail you. Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to protect your stored photos too.

Ways to Protect Photos on Your Devices

Don’t Take Personal Pictures

The easiest way to make sure your private photos stay private is to not take any in the first place. If you’re about to take a picture of something that you wouldn’t want your family, your boss, the Queen of England, or the whole world to see, take your finger off the button and don’t snap that shot. This includes compromising photos of yourself that may be used for intimate purposes, vital information like banking info, and anything else that you feel is best kept just to yourself. It’s easy to keep personal photos private when you just don’t have any.

Delete Photos When You’re Done With Them

Alright, maybe you’re not a robot and occasionally want to (or need to) take a photo that could be considered compromising or embarrassing if shown to the wrong person. The best safety solution is deleting that image from your device as soon as you no longer need it.

Password Protect Your Devices to Keep Personal Photos Private

Your smartphone, tablet, and laptop are all personal and private devices. What you do with them is your business and should remain that way. One of the surest ways to keep your devices safe is to password protect them. This stops other people from snooping through your information, including your camera roll.

Don’t Store Images on the Cloud

Cloud services are an excellent storage solution. You can save documents and pictures online to free up space on one device and access those same items on any other device. However, sometimes cloud services become compromised by hackers which means the items you save there can be as well. Instead, keep your photos on your own devices. If you need to store them elsewhere, consider external, offline hard drives (like USBs) that can’t be hacked.

Use a Secure Picture Exchange

We know, we know. You’re still going to take and send pictures that would disappoint your grandmother. Stay safe while doing so by using a secure picture exchange. Look for a service with automatic photo destruct, instead of sending images through text or Snapchat. Good apps to try include Wickr and Telegram. This well help you keep those extra personal photos private.

Thanks to modern technology, we’re never without cameras. We can snap selfies, grab a photo of the sunset, capture video of our dogs playing fetch, document our tour of the local brewery, and more. But, few people consider how to keep their personal photos private when sharing those images with others. Fortunately, digital privacy is something that’s easy to maintain and can be hands-off too, so long as you know how to stay safe.

Posted by Rhiannon

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