Protect your online photos from hijackers


Odds are, you have a photo or two floating around out there, and that photo may be making the rounds in places you never even knew about.

Like most of us, Jay Breen posts snapshots of his life on Facebook.

"If I'm doing something interesting or fun, like traveling, traveling to other countries or you know, to an island," he said.

But when a friend mentioned seeing those photos on a scandalous dating website, Jay was stunned. He logged on, and sure enough...

"Up comes pictures of myself -- three pictures -- that I posted on Facebook when I first signed up a while ago," he said. "This particular website is something I didn't want to be associated with."

Jay's photo had been hijacked.

With hundreds of millions of images being uploaded daily to popular social media sites, experts warn that even the savviest Internet users are seeing their pictures and other personal media copied and shared without their consent.

Attorney Doug Isenberg likens it to digital shoplifting.

"Anything that you or I can create as long as it is an original work of authorship is protected under U.S. copyright law," he said. "It can include photographs, video, audio."

What's even scarier is that reports are popping up around the world of stolen photos appearing in political attack ads, online scams and even on foreign billboards, just to name a few.

What can you do if you discover you're a victim? First, try contacting the site owner or content creator directly. That's what Jay did.

"This is becoming more serious, please remove it -- in capital letters -- before I get, you know, someone involved, an attorney involved," he said.

"You could send a cease and desist letter, citing violations of U.S. Copyright Act, and certainly in an extreme case you can file a complaint in court for copyright infringement," Isenberg said.

A simpler option would be to take preventative steps, like putting a visible watermark over things like photos and video.

"It's typically just a logo or a copyright image that's an overlay on top of your image," said Ben Bounketh with Digimarc.

But it's easy to crop the watermark out, or remove it through special software. You can turn to a growing number of companies that offer other options, from software to give it a unique fingerprint to digital watermarks that can't be seen by the naked eye. Then, they can be tracked.

"We have a search service that's actually crawling the Internet. The customer can then log in and view a report of where all of their images have been located," Bounketh said.

Jay's threats to hire an attorney worked, but he has a warning for you the next time you post a photo:

"Think before you do it because you never know where the pictures will end up."

Another precaution is to change your privacy settings to be sure that only friends and family can see those photos. Of course, those friends and family members can still copy and save them to be used in other places, but at least you cut back on the number of people who have access to them.

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