Social media and image sharing sites have made it possible for families and friends to be connected no matter how far geography separates them. With instant photo uploads and websites like Flickr and Instagram, it’s easier than ever to show Grandma the baby’s first steps, or to let your friends see that adorable face your son made while eating broccoli.

But an alarming trend is making parents think twice about sharing their photos, especially at this time of year when families gather together for the holidays. More and more internet users are coming forward to share horror stories of their photos being stolen and used for a variety of purposes, and by a host of different types of individuals.

Instagram has had its share of photo woes due to a role-playing community that steals users’ photos and creates entire fictitious lives around the images. FastCompany reported on the trend in which participants find baby photos, post them to their own accounts, and proceed to make up whole identities for the children, claiming the babies as their own. There are even photo “adoption agencies” that play along, offering baby images to people who wish to engage in this type of game.

While the practice is probably harmless—meaning that there aren’t corroborated reports of these role-players actually attempting to locate the child in real life—what is less harmless are the internet hoaxes that involve stolen baby photos, images that are often Photoshopped prior to being used in the scam.

Other users, however, have been surprised to find their photos turned into memes that have gone viral, often after being doctored. One father reported on a photo he took of him with his son, and was horrified to find that it had been altered and shared across social media; moreover, people’s comments on the doctored images were unbelievably menacing. Another Flickr user posted an original photo of a British classic car to his Flickr account, then found his image used by a major clothing retailer, without his permission and (obviously) without compensating him from the profits from the sale of the shirt.

While this behavior seems to be harmless so far, it does bring up the other very real danger to be found in online photo sharing, and that’s geotagging. Most smartphones automatically add a GPS tag to the photo’s file, linking to the location where the photograph was taken. Once you upload the image to your social media, those GPS coordinates can be retrieved by someone with the right software and know how. That’s why it’s a good idea to turn off the location settings in your phone before taking a picture that you plan to share online.

If you want to help ensure that your photographs aren’t used for other people’s purposes—no matter how innocent or malicious those purposes seem to be—you might want to consider watermarking your photos before you share them online. This step will put a mark through the image so that it becomes less enticing to someone who wants to steal it. It makes your photo less attractive, of course, but makes it a little safer to share with the internet. Anyone who knows you personally could then request an emailed version without the watermark, and you would have an increased measure of control over who has your un-doctored image.

To read more about staying safe & keeping your privacy on the internet, see our other articles on cybersecurity.


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