What to do if your personal images or videos are being used without your permission.
The theft and misuse of personal images – sometimes particularly sensitive images – is a growing problem around the world. Although uploading images and videos online is a new favorite pastime for millions of people, it comes with its risks – and the effects can range from embarrassment and financial loss to serious psychological harm.
Recent incidents of celebrity image thefts have been widely-reported, but you don’t have to be a celebrity to suffer the same fate. Protecting your images – and dealing with the theft of your images effectively – should be a priority for anyone who uploads images to the internet. Here is a guide to the risks, how to protect yourself online, and what to do if you are a victim.
Chapter 1: Image & Video Theft: How It Occurs
The rise of camera phones, internet-connected devices, social media and high-speed internet has made it easier than ever to upload images and videos to the internet. Countless personal images and videos are now stored in the cloud – and when something is online, there is always a risk that it could be stolen. Here are some of the main ways that image theft occurs.
Uploading photos and videos is one of the main activities carried out on social media sites. Photos of anything and everything end up on Facebook, Twitter and other social sites, usually with the intention of sharing them with friends and family.
But numerous incidents of photos being stolen from social media sites and uploaded to other sites without the owner’s authorisation have been reported in recent times, indicating a growing problem.
For example, the Daily Mail recently reported on a 20-year-old student who had her personal Facebook images downloaded without her permission and used on a casual sex website. Another similar case was reported in The Mirror, where images of schoolgirls were stolen from social media sites and posted on pornographic websites.
In both of these incidents, the pictures were not particularly sensitive and the owners probably had no reservations about posting them online, but the results were still disturbing.
One of the biggest stories of 2014 was the celebrity photo hack, as reported by the BBC and across the web, in which hundreds of celebrities had images – many of them intimate – stolen from their iCloud accounts. Apple claimed that there had been no breach of its service, suggesting the offenders had managed to get into the accounts not through hacking but through guessing the passwords.
In most cases, the victims had uploaded the pictures from their iPhones, and some of them may not have even realised that their pictures were being automatically uploaded to the cloud.
While the celebrity image theft incident is thought to have occurred due to the use of weak passwords and security questions, anyone who stores photos online or even on an internet-connected device should be aware of the danger of hacking. No matter how secure an online storage provider claims to be, there is always a small risk that your account could be hacked and your images stolen.
Sexting is a relatively new phenomenon – and one that is causing a lot of concern, particularly for parents. It typically involves the sending of sexual images via mobile devices, often between teenagers and children.
Apps such as Snapchat have appeared in recent years that have fuelled the practice. These provide a service whereby the image being sent self-destructs a few seconds after appearing. In theory, this allows people to send images safely knowing that they will not be stored anywhere.
However, there are always risks involved in such actions. For example, ‘The Snappening’, as reported in Business Insider, was a recent incident where thousands of Snapchat images – many of them highly sensitive – were uploaded to the internet. They had been harvested using a third-party app, and although such apps are against the Snapchat’s rules, it didn’t stop the problem from occurring. Snapchat now warns users if someone tries to save the image being sent, but risks clearly remain.
Chapter 2: The Dangers of Online Image Theft
Online image theft can occur in many ways, and having personal photos and videos stolen can be very distressing for the victims. So how are these images used by thieves? Here are some of the key dangers.
Inappropriate Use of Images
As previously mentioned, images can be taken from social accounts and elsewhere online and then used inappropriately – such as on pornographic websites or adult dating websites. Images do not have to be particularly sensitive to be used in this way, and they are often just harmless profile pictures. However, such use of images can still be distressing for the victims.
Sexually explicit images and videos are a particularly sensitive area, and when they are stolen they can be used as ‘revenge porn’. This is where someone – often an ex-partner of the victim – posts the explicit images online, and sometimes links are also included to the victim’s social media profiles. This causes obvious distress to the victim, and in some countries there are laws in place to punish offenders.
Stalkers who operate online sometimes make use of stolen personal images to create false profiles on social media networks, as well as websites or blogs. These are used to imitate the victim or to offend them in a bid to cause them harm and distress. Laws exist to punish cyberstalkers in both the UK and the USA.
The obvious risk of sexting is that the images get into the wrong hands, which could lead to them being made publicly available online. Images of minors could even get into the hands of paedophiles. An NSPCC report highlights some of the main risks of sexting.
There is also another serious risk – the receivers of images could be prosecuted as sex offenders for possessing indecent images of children, even if they are themselves minors.
A different sort of danger exists for professional photographers and artists who have their online images stolen. When professional images are used without permission, this could cause financial loss for the professional.
Chapter 3: Protecting Yourself Online
So how can you reduce the chances of such a situation happening to you? There are various things that you can do to protect yourself online.
Use Antivirus Software
Due to the risk of computers, tablets and phones being hacked and images stolen from them, always make sure you use up-to-date antivirus software and that your firewall is running.
Protect Your Online Accounts
Most online storage services, email accounts and social networks make use of passwords to ensure only you get access to your account. However, weak passwords are one of the easiest ways to break into online accounts. Get into the habit of creating long, random passwords for all your accounts, then store them in a password management tool like 1Password. In addition:
- Change your passwords regularly and don’t use the same password for more than one account.
- Always use 2-step verification where available. This is where when you attempt to log on from another computer you will be sent a security code via SMS, and this provides another layer of security.
- Don’t answer security questions with details that are easy to guess or find out – information like your first school could be found online.
- Don’t click on links in emails that look suspicious due to the risk of phishing scams where a criminal could get access to your online accounts.
- Avoid opening attachments in emails from unknown senders because they could infect your computer with a virus.
Change Your Security Settings
On social media accounts, you can usually decide who can see your images and posts. On Facebook, you can change your security settings so that only people in your network can see your past and future posts, so it is a good idea to limit this to friends in your network (there is a detailed guide to improving your Facebook security settings at CNET).
Be especially careful about what you post to Twitter because your posts will be publicly available. Twitter provides a few tips about security here. Also change your security settings on other social networks to reduce the risks.
If you upload images online that are not sensitive (such as professional images), you could use a watermark tool to make stealing your images pointless. The DMCA watermarking tool could be a good option, but there are other ways to achieve the same result. For example, you could draw a cross on each image or write your name on it. You could also upload only very low-quality images to make them virtually useless to thieves.
Check Your Mobile Phone & Tablet Settings
Your mobile phone may be set up to automatically store the photos you take online. Although this can be a useful feature, you may not want all of your images stored online – after all, even accounts that are supposedly secure can be hacked.
Educate Children of the Risks
Young people are particularly vulnerable to the risks of stolen images. They are often unaware of the dangers, and they may simply be doing what all their friends are doing. The NSPCC provides advice to parents on sexting, and you can also help them by:
- Talking to them about the risks.
- Helping them to improve their privacy settings on social networks.
- Setting up a password management tool for them to use.
- Making sure their antivirus software is on and up to date.
Avoid Taking Sensitive Images
The only way to completely avoid the risks is to avoid posting any images online, but that is not an option for many people. Due to the risks of computers and phones being hacked, even if the images are not uploaded onto the internet, a risk of theft still occurs.
However, you may want to think twice about taking, storing and sending particularly intimate images, even if they are only sent to a trusted partner. Be very careful about who you share sensitive images with and where they are stored. This is particularly true of sexting, and you should remind yourself that such images are never 100% secure.
Chapter 4: What to Do If You Are a Victim
Having your personal images or videos stolen can be a distressing situation, but there are steps you can take to reduce the damage. Here are some of the main steps to consider.
Search for Your Images
You can use online tools to attempt to find your images wherever they are online. You could do this on a regular basis as a way to catch improper use of your images early on. Alternatively, you may be aware that your images have been stolen and you want to find out where they are being uploaded.
There are various tools that you can use to find images that have been stolen. For example, you could simply search for your name using an alert service like Talkwalker Alerts. If your name appears with the images, this could be a simple way to locate them.
Digimarc is a tool that embeds a digital ID into your photos so you can then trace your images if they are being used without your permission, and this can be a good solution for professionals.
Find Out Who Is Hosting Your Images
If you become aware that your images have been used without your consent, one of the first things to do is find out more about the website. If a Facebook profile has been set up using your images, report it to Facebook. Other social sites should all have instructions on how to do this.
If the images are on a separate website, start your research by finding out who is behind the website. Use a tool like WhoIsHostingThis.com to find out details of the web host, and you can use this information for the next stage.
Use the DMCA Takedown Service
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a US copyright law, and you can use its takedown services if you find a website using your personal images without your permission. It provides a do-it-yourself service and a professional service. All you have to do is provide it with the details and pay a fee, and it will start working to get your images removed.
Get Legal Advice or Contact the Police
Sometimes you may need to get professional legal advice, especially if you have been affected by cyberstalking or revenge porn. In these situations, an offence may have been committed, and the guilty party may be punished.
The United States has revenge porn laws in numerous states, and it is enacting legislation in others. You may be able to use existing laws as well, including voyeurism laws and defamation laws.
The UK is also in the process of bringing in a new law to make revenge porn illegal, which you can read about at Gov.uk.
You may also want to contact the police, especially if the stolen image depicts a child. Gather as much information as you can, including screenshots of the website or social account displaying the images, the web host, the offender’s details and anything else you can find.
Details on UK Copyright Law
End Revenge Porn, a website dedicated to helping victims of revenge porn, containing news, advice, petitions, resources and more.
The NSPCC provides advice and information relating to online dangers for children.
The Network for Surviving Stalking is a charity providing support for stalking victims, including victims of cyberstalking.
Get Safe Online provides free advice from experts for all online activities.
Details on Copyright Law in the USA
Without My Consent is a website that aims to help people who have had their online privacy violated.
NCSL (The National Conference of State Legislators) contains a section on cyberstalking laws in the USA.
Working to Halt Online Abuse is an organisation providing help and support for cyberstalking victims.