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Privacy Perspectives | When Embarrassing Photos Metastasize Online and How One Person Took Control of It Related reading: Indian government reiterates intent to table reworked data protection bill



What are you going to be for Halloween? If you do plan on dressing up, what are the chances photos of you in your glorious costume will be taken and posted online? Well, we’ll come back to this…

A few months back, I wrote about the nightmare of having an ex-spouse post embarrassing and vengeful photos of Lee David Clayworth online. The generativity of the Internet allows information to flow and metastasize so quickly, such disturbing posts can be almost impossible to take down or control.

We’ve also featured a few posts on this blog concerned with online hate speech and the rampant existence of online trolls—folks who scour the Internet looking for ways to make people feel terrible. As someone who has had their identity stolen and felt the utter helplessness of not being able to control my personal information and identity, the harm is real, but difficult to quantify.

Last week, Caitlin Seida wrote a column for Salon about her experience of having an embarrassing photo of herself posted online. One day, a friend had alerted her to a very public site dedicated to mocking people’s appearances. The site featured a photo of Seida dressed in her Halloween costume. “There I was in full glory,” she wrote, “a picture of me dressed as my hero Lara Croft: Tomb Raider for Halloween—but written over the image were the words ‘Fridge Raider.’”

You see, Seida eats right, (“most of the time”), and exercises (“an inordinate amount”), but struggles with polycystic ovarian syndrome and a failing thyroid gland. “I’m strong, I’m flexible and my doctor assures me my health is good,” she explains, “but the fact remains: I’m larger than someone my height should be.”

At first, she said, “I wasn’t even angry … I was actually kind of amused.” Clearly she has a sense of humor and a good view of what’s really important in life. But something changed; she began reading user comments. “Hundreds of hateful messages, most of them saying that I was a worthless human being and shaming me for having the audacity to go in public dressed as a sexy video game character … Scrolling through the comments, the world imploded—and took my heart with it,” she wrote.

In my experience a number of years back, someone actively used my personal information to file my federal taxes. And in the case of Clayworth, an ex-girlfriend actively stole his personal photos from his laptop to shame him online. Funny or not, even Scarlett Johansson has recently been victimized online.

But for Seida, she realized the source of her troubles actually stemmed from her very own Facebook post. “I’d posted the image on Facebook,” she wrote, “but like so many before me, I’d failed to pay attention to my privacy settings when I uploaded it. Instead of restricting access to my friend network, I’d inadvertently given access to the whole world.”

There are so many things that are seemingly out of an internet user’s control: How online behavior is tracked by ad networks and other third parties or how the NSA collects phone metadata are just two examples. But the more educated users are about online privacy, the more empowered they can become.

Seida went a step further because, as she explains, “Facebook made it easy to find people who had commented on the images. By now, the picture had metastasized through reposts on Twitter, Tumblr, reddit, 9Gag, FailBlog. But looking through the Facebook ‘like’ function, I could track down the most offensive commenters.” And she let them know how she felt about their commentary. For the most part, folks were surprised she had found them. “Most didn’t realize,” she said, “that when you post to a public page through your Facebook account, it doesn’t matter that your own content is restricted.”

We, in the privacy community, have been talking a lot about business accountability of late, but maybe the best way for businesses to be accountable is to show users how they can be accountable. Sieda was clearly accountable for her actions once she understood the tools Facebook provide could be used as much for good as harm, plus, her plan to regain control of her image is laudable and perhaps a lesson for all of us. Personal privacy is a thing to cherish, but if parts of it are lost, there are ways people can try to take back, at least some, control, as long as those tools are supplied and easy to understand.

As Seida says, “I’ve also learned to keep a tighter rein on my privacy settings online. I don’t always succeed at keeping my content private, but I’m certainly more guarded now.”

We hear a lot about transparency, but not as much about power. What good is knowing what’s being done to you if you don’t have the power to change it? As soon as Seida stopped feeling helpless, the harm decreased.

Like a few other brave, thick-skinned souls, Seida now regularly searches out the “less tasteful side of the Internet” to issue take-down notices, but as she noted, “it’ll never be completely gone, which is why I decided to post the image in this story. On my own terms. To own it again, without shame this time.”

If more consumers feel like they have more ownership over their online identities, much of today’s privacy debates might be significantly lessened.

In the meantime, if you do dress up this Halloween, have a good time. Just think twice before posting about it online.


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