How safe or unsafe are online photos?
June 11, 2006 9:34 AM   Subscribe

Is it safe to post pictures online? Should I worry that they might be taken the wrong way or seen by the wrong person?

Recently, I've been bitten by the shutterbug. I've been taking pictures with my cameraphone and emailing directly to my Flickr account. A lot of my pictures are of myself and my closest friends being weird and doing what we usually do.

One of my friends told me yesterday that he wasn't comfortable having his picture online, and that he had even removed the pictures from his myspace profile because they could be viewed or used in a malicious way.

I just moved all of the pictures of my friends to "Private" based on his comments, but it got me wondering. There's no illegal activity, no nudity - just us being us. A person would know what city we live in and that we spend a lot of time downtown, but otherwise there's nothing. We're all "of age". So many people - especially on Flickr or myspace or livejournal - take putting their picture online for granted. Is there a real danger?
posted by golden_lady to Computers & Internet (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It depends what you mean by "danger". A possible future employer or partner could google your name and see you acting like a doofus with your friends, but that's just about the worst scenario I can think of. It's not very malicious, though, is it?
posted by afx237vi at 9:38 AM on June 11, 2006

Yeah, you should be cautious about this.

Once, I came across a pic of my girlfriend on someone's blog. The blogger didn't know her at all. Just found a pic of her on someone else's website and used it as an experiment in Photoshop color balancing. There were "before" and "after" versions, plus my gf's very distinctive first name in the post.

To make a long story short, my gf did not appreciate it, and the blogger reacted very badly to my request to remove it. I spent several days negotiating between them through many tense emails, and it left a shitty taste in everyone's mouth by the time it was finished.

The blogger told me repeatedly that once it's on the web, it's on the web and anyone can do anything they want with it. I think her argument ran completely roughshod over copyright, there, honestly, but what was I going to do? Sue her?

This is just an example of how random things can happen when you post a photo online. And while it was hectic and painful, in the end it was innocuous. At the very least I'd be sure NOT to use real names in your captions and such.
posted by scarabic at 9:51 AM on June 11, 2006

Well it's safe as long as you don't consider embarrassment as risk. Some people are more worried about those then others, so it's considerate to ask permission before posting people's pictures.

You could also have a stalker situation, and it seems like myspace would be a good way for stalkers to find their stalkees. I would go around to all your friends and ask them if it's OK for you to post their pictures on flickr.

Also, Flickr has a "friends" system similar to myspace. You can set your pictures as "friends only" so only your actual friends can see them. Also, most of your friends probably already have yahoo accounts (Flickr is owned by yahoo) so it should be really easy for your friends to get access to your private pictures.

But yeah I would say there's no real risk other then potentially being embarrassed.
posted by delmoi at 9:52 AM on June 11, 2006

There was another occasion when I posted a pic of a friend with a cigarette in hand. Turns out his parents did not know he smoked, and they'd be scandalized if they found out. Things like this are hard to anticipate, so yeah, use caution.
posted by scarabic at 9:53 AM on June 11, 2006

If your friend is that paranoid about having his picture on the internet, he should never go in public. Honestly, I think he's being overreactive here. I mean sure, it's his choice and it's good that you respect that...but I wouldn't personally worry about it. *shrugs* I don't think there's any more danger having your picture on the internet as there is going out in a public place. Both are arenas where people give up a bit of their privacy because it's a shared space. If he's concerned about some psycho stalking him after finding his picture on the net, then I would say he should probably never leave the house if he's that paranoid. You can't go through life living as if danger lurks in every corner.
posted by crypticgeek at 9:54 AM on June 11, 2006

Oh another thing is that many people just don't like the way they look in most pictures (the same way they don't like the sound of their own voice) :P That might be one issue.

The blogger told me repeatedly that once it's on the web, it's on the web and anyone can do anything they want with it. I think her argument ran completely roughshod over copyright, there, honestly, but what was I going to do? Sue her?

You could have sent her provider a DMCA takedown notice to her hosting provider, assuming this was after 1998. It's actually her responsibility to prove she has the copyright if you make a complaint.
posted by delmoi at 9:56 AM on June 11, 2006

Well...friends aren' the only ones looking at places like flickr or myspace etc. And once you have one person you can click through to their contacts and who knows where you end up.

Online persona can ruin your shot at that job

There is also a beta search thing somewhere (that I can't find at the moment) that will search myspace, freindster etc. all at once for profile type stuff.

And I can't believe some of the personal info that folks post on the internet. Thy're nuts!
posted by bim at 10:08 AM on June 11, 2006

Safe or not is one thing, I don't know. But in general I think it is rude and disrespectful to post pictures of people online without their consent.
posted by Rumple at 10:12 AM on June 11, 2006

It squicks me out to think of some jackass making fun of my looks, or photoshopping my picture. At a previous job, the guys in the office would look up profiles on dating sites and make fun of people. So I prefer not to have pictures on the intarwebs.
posted by theora55 at 10:29 AM on June 11, 2006

To me, it's like cellphones, anyone, and I mean anyone could listen in on your conversations and record them with some fairly cheap equipment, but why? Most photos on the internet are uninteresting and uninspired. There's bigger things to worry about.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:05 AM on June 11, 2006

My friend needed money when she was travelling in Australia, and was offered something like $150 by to take nude pictures of herself. The website is relativley arty/obscure and you have to pay to look at the pictures, so she thought it would stay secret from those who didn't need to know.
Unfortunatley, about a year later, some of the pictures turned up on a free, seedy porn site, and was seen by some dirty old men who drink in her pub. She's managed to sort it out now, but not without some uncomfortable conversations.

posted by King_Wang at 11:07 AM on June 11, 2006

I don't.
posted by sonofsamiam at 11:30 AM on June 11, 2006

To me, it all depends on whether or not they're tied to your full name i.e. people could find them by Googling you. I have no problem posting pictures on Flickr, but wouldn't want it tied to my full name (a rather uncommon last name makes me easy to Google; I'm the only one of me there is). It's not that I'm embarrassed; I just don't want everyone who can use a search engine to see everything. That said, I wouldn't post anything on the internet I wouldn't be comfortable with anyone and everyone seeing.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:36 AM on June 11, 2006 [1 favorite]

Pics of our 2-year old son in the bathtub (but not showing private parts) which were on our family webpage ended up hotlinked from a pseudo-pedophilia website called We didn't know until a concerned lady E-mailed us about it. Needless to say, my wife started password-protecting our family pics directory.
posted by hodyoaten at 11:37 AM on June 11, 2006

here is an article from Wired about being sued for "violating their privacy".
posted by nimsey lou at 12:04 PM on June 11, 2006

Part of the trouble on Flickr as well is that even though you might not post anythign 'revealing" about you or your friends, someone else might in the comments [like "oh we were really fucked up last night"] and so you'd have to sort of keep an eye on them too. I think. Recently in AskMe there was a woman posting who was getting way too much attention from someone online. This was becoming a double-problem because she was also having a somewhat secretive relationship that she had hoped to keep somewhat private [besides posting about it on her blog].

Generally I'm an advocate of having an online life/persona, but I'm well aware that my friends/family don't all feel the same way. No matter how much I tell them "hey it's no big deal" that doesn't make it real for them and at the end of the day, if they say "hey I don't want pix of me online" I try to respect their choice. In the crowds I run with, this is fairly normal, I'm sure there are other groups of people for whom not wanting to be online is borderline crazy, but that's my perspective.

Things that could come back to be a problem include what people have said [jobs, legal stuff, smoking] but also maybe talking about people or doing thigns behind certain people's backs that then come back to bite you on the ass. This doesn't even start talking about things like having to deal with 200 pix of you with an ex on someone else's site or the hassle of someone recognizing you in public and thingking they know you from seeing you online.

So, in short, I don't think you have to worry as long as you've taken the worst case scenarios into account, but if your friends are concerned you might want to try to be cool about their choices at the same time, if at all possible.
posted by jessamyn at 1:02 PM on June 11, 2006

nimsey lou: I assume that you're referring to this line: "In Qu├ębec, a teenage girl successfully sued a photographer for $8,000 after he took her picture without her knowledge, even though she was sitting on the front steps of a public building."

That is so unbelievably lame. :-(

I've ended up locking photos behind password protected directories because of abuse as well. Too many assholes on the internet these days.
posted by drstein at 1:06 PM on June 11, 2006

You should probably be aware that you're asking a bit of a biased audience here -- people who are interacting on an online forum most likely have a higher threshold for what's appropriate to share online than the general population does.

Going back to your friend and saying, "You shouldn't be worried about putting information on the internet! My online friends told me so!" may not carry all that much weight.
posted by occhiblu at 2:17 PM on June 11, 2006

In the United States, to the best of my (pretty thorough on this topic) knowledge, anyone can take a picture of you in public, from a public place, and do whatever they like with that picture (up until the point that "whatever they like" starts breaking preexisting laws). So, this is really an issue of tying it to a name (well, and the fact that nobody cares enough to take pictures of you and post them anywhere but in NSA-WalMart databases...)
posted by dmd at 3:13 PM on June 11, 2006

(1) You don't necessarily need a copyright owner's permission to use an image. There's such a thing as "fair use" which includes things like parody. And, it seems to me, that parady is exactly what you should be concerned about. You probably wouldn't want a potential employer to see you being mocked on the worldwide web.

(2) Yup, when you are doing things out in public, people can photograph you and then publish those photos. However, when they profit off your image -- you may have a claim in certain circumstances.

Personally, I wouldn't post personal photos for the world to see. You probably wouldn't stand on the corner with prints of your vacation photos and just show them to each and every person who roamed by -- but by posting them on the net that's essentially what you are doing. Actually, when you post them, it's more like you are showing every single member of the public your picture and offering them a copy of their own.
posted by GIRLesq at 6:07 PM on June 11, 2006

Fark could always get hold of your images and turn you into a photoshop thread as well... how would you feel about that?
posted by IndigoRain at 7:24 PM on June 11, 2006

Unless you're doing something illegal or grossly idiotic, I don't think it matters at all. I think you're overestimating how much someone else cares about specifically you.

Regarding hodyoaten's post: while that is unsettling... does it really matter? I mean, it's a photo. You're not being assaulted.

Trying to control your public persona is ridiculous. All of these cameraphones will document your every move anyway, so you're doomed. Two-part solution: A) don't be an idiot, and B) don't care.
posted by umlaut at 10:37 PM on June 11, 2006

I'm surprised nobody's linked to this yet, the case of a woman who was involved in a performance art event with whacky costumes etc.

When later she was involved in a child custody dispute, the photographs of her wearing a goat's head were used by the other side to convince the judge she was a satanist.

So one man's "being weird" could very well turn out, even years later, to be another man's satanic ritual, if someone unscrupulous decided to use them that way.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:50 AM on June 12, 2006

I had an experience like scarabic's gf, but the person was much more malicious in presentation. I got some abusive email from other people had who visited the person's site. Things escalated somewhat more, and I was worried about my safety. I called the police and they told me there was nothing I could do. Now I don't post pictures of myself or anyone I know online, no matter how innocent.
posted by carmen at 7:27 AM on June 12, 2006

Here's the thing: you have to consider that anything you put on the internet might be (in some sense) permanent. Most of the time, this doesn't matter, but I'm paranoid about photos also.

I make a habit of marking all my flickr photos with other people in them as 'friends only' and all the photos of flowers and dogs as 'public.'

Your friends aren't celebrities, and you probably shouldn't post pictures of them without their permission.
posted by benrodian at 5:36 PM on June 13, 2006

GIRLesq:(2) Yup, when you are doing things out in public, people can photograph you and then publish those photos. However, when they profit off your image -- you may have a claim in certain circumstances.

Almost right. You can photograph anything that you can see from public land (with the notable exception of military installations) and you are free to do whatever you like with it personally. The moment that you start using it commercially it becomes more complicated. You *need* to get a model release form for any identifiable person whose likeness appears in your photos or most publications will not even accept it. I believe that newspapers/TV news get an exemption to some extent from this rule, but anywhere else (websites, magazines, videos) you must have that form signed and dated. If you do not, the person who appears in the photo has an open and shut case against you and they will win.

So long as you are using the image in a non-commercial/non-slanderous way, the person in the image does not really have a case against you in any way. It is, however, considered polite to remove an image if it is requested by the offended party.
posted by rez at 1:46 PM on June 14, 2006

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