Online Photos Not as Private As District Mother Assumed

By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008

Be careful what photographs you post online.

About four months ago Meredith Massey uploaded three pictures of her children skinny-dipping, along with more than 50 other photos, to the online photo site Flickr. She marked those untitled and unclothed pictures "private" for her parents' eyes only. But a couple of weeks ago, the District woman discovered the selected snapshots had been viewed thousands of times, while other photos had about 20 hits. She immediately removed the pictures and contacted Flickr.

"Are creepy people searching through thousands of pictures looking for random naked ones?" Massey said, baffled at how viewers got around the privacy settings. "I don't know."

Flickr spokeswoman Terrell Karlsten said the company was working with Massey to figure out what went wrong.

Massey's story has caused a stir on local parenting blogs. With so many things out in the open on the Internet, how can parents guard their children's privacy?

In The Post's On Parenting blog, someone identifying herself as "montgomery village md mom" wrote: "For the most part I do not post photos of my children on the Internet (clothed or otherwise). I don't even allow summer camps, schools or other groups to post my child's photo (even if they will not be captioned). We need to be serious about protecting the privacy of our children."

Another person, identified as "Reading in Reading," wrote: "Taking prudent steps to protect kids is essential, of course, but so is expecting that online services will do everything to protect public trust in their product."

Web sites such as Flickr automatically designate all online photo albums as public when they are set up. Others like Shutterfly and Snapfish keep them private unless the user indicates that they can be shared.

"It's undeniable that companies could do a better job of informing consumers about their choices and helping consumers exercise those choices," said James X. Dempsey, policy director at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Dempsey recommends checking each site's default settings. Depending on the site, there are a number of options as to who can blog, download or print your pictures.

"People should look before they leap and spend a little bit of time understanding how a particular site works," Dempsey said.

If you add a caption or name a photo, know that the keywords might pop up in a Internet search someday. Google's Picasa, for example, has a "searchable" option for those who want to share their pictures with the world.

Photo-sharing Web sites recommend that users test their privacy settings by having a friend try to break into their private photo albums to see if the pictures are thoroughly hidden.

"If you don't want the Flickr community to view a photo, take the extra step to make sure the photo is marked as private," Karlsten said.

Make sure the settings are private, but know that privacy settings aren't foolproof.

Strangers can see a photo -- public or private -- if they have the full Web address. Of course, generating that exact address, which is often littered with meaningless letters and numbers to trip up hackers, out of thin air is close to impossible.

Also, Dempsey noted, the federal government can access any online photos with just a subpoena.

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