Photos on the Internet: 5 Things Every Parent Needs to Know
(Republished from April 2017)
We all want to raise our kiddos to be the best little people they can be in the world so that they grow to be the healthiest grown-up versions of themselves navigating the changing landscape of that same world. We wish for them to be and do whatever they want in this world despite their race, gender identity, socioeconomic status and family construct.
Many of us find ourselves enmeshed ongoing in a battle of balance; protect without hovering; teach without enabling; bond without smothering. We take great measures to secure additional income & sacrifice deeply to cover tuition, extracurriculars, camps, healthy meals, a bigger vehicle, a family therapist. We research the best practitioners. We want to shield them from creeps and perpetrators. We want them to have healthy relationships and we work very hard to model all of this in our day-to-day lives despite how difficult it may be to do the work and parent simultaneously.
But what if we’re setting our kids up for failure from the very foundation we’re so invested in building? What if we are unwittingly inviting danger into their lives, now or in the future? What if we are creating a scenario that negatively impacts them as they find their own way in this world?
Recently, I’ve discovered that the more deeply I invest in my own internal work as a parent while actively parenting, the sharper my focus is on my transracial family and the smaller my face-to-face circle becomes. Which is to say, I’ve come to rely heavily on connecting to my people via the web and in many ways am fiercely private. I use social media to connect in ways now that are vastly different than before we started our family. I cringe at some of those timehop things on Facebook that bring me back to posts from 7 years ago. I delete them promptly despite knowing they are just archived somewhere(s), and part of my digital footprint forever. But what does that even mean?
Not long ago, I started noticing a growing social media trend among some of my high school friends on Facebook. One friend in particular, consistently cross-posted photos of their kiddo on Instagram and Facebook with a hashtag unique to their kid; #FirstNameMiddleName. It struck me that I could tap that hashtag and follow her child’s life over the course of several years. Curious, I did just that and discovered I could easily weave together a narrative of her early and latency-aged years; where they lived, sports played and injuries from them, religious preference, restaurants frequented, where they shopped, and lots of personal stories and information. It caused me to pause.
I’m confident my friend had the best of intentions in sharing so much about her kiddo’s life but I wondered if she knew the risks and potential harm she was putting her kid in. Then I found myself wondering about what I didn’t know. So, I brushed up on the topic to deliver the following list of 5 things you need to know as a foster parent, an adoptive parent, a biological parent, the friend of a parent.
1. Facial Recognition
Have you noticed an album in your iPhone’s camera roll called “People?” According to Apple, the Photos app uses “advanced computer vision” to scan your photos to recognize people, scenes, and objects, then organizes them for you. It’s localized facial recognition on your device. Google started something similar in early 2016 and facebook has been collecting, organizing and storing images of our faces for years. “We're able to compare your friend's photos to information we've put together from your profile pictures and the other photos you're tagged in.” Sound familiar?
Instagram, Facebook’s kid company, isn’t far behind. The problem here (where to begin?) lies in faceprints. I’m no expert here, but it sounds like if enough images of your face are captured (via public records, surveillance footage, yearbooks, photos uploaded to the internet, mugshots, etc.) a digital image of your face, faceprint, can be created and used like a fingerprint for keyless entry, funny animal filters in apps, or, if you're in China, to dole out 2 feet of toilet paper. And if that doesn’t have you wondering wtf, check out Face Find, an app currently marketed and downloaded 500,000 times in Russia that allows a user to snap a photo of a crowd, then identifies the people in that photo with up to 70% accuracy. The political implication here is sobering, as individuals could be identified in group shots of protest crowds or rallies. And as parents, and in particular foster parents the idea that group shots can identify faces and locations easily could be worrisome.
I have location-based services shut off on my iPhone. Which is why I was surprised to see 17 photos pop up in my camera's “Places” album. Turns out, these were all photos sent to me by family and friends. Which means, they don’t have their privacy settings set to disable Geotagging. Unless you dismantle it in your settings, every photo you take with your smartphone camera has a snippet of data attached to it that shows the exact latitude and longitude the photo was taken.
There are lots of privacy and safety implications for this. I’ll give you 2 concrete examples:
Example 1: Location-based services are enabled on your phone and your photo is downloaded from twitter/instagram/facebook and plugged into a website to learn your location. You’re at home with your peeps getting ready for your family’s big holiday party. You’re tweeting how-to pics for that kickass dessert you just put together that’ll knock the socks off Granny’s secret recipe for Cherries Jubilee. You pack it up, gather the kiddies, upload one more snap on insta showing off how ridiculously cute you all look with a comment that says, “We’re off!” You’ve just let the world know your house is empty and full of Christmas gifts.
Example 2: When your location-based services are turned off on your phone but you use the in-app feature on social media. You’re a foster parent who regularly uploads to Instagram but is careful to not reveal the identity of your own kids and the kids in your care. The weather is warmer and you’re headed out for a day of fun in the sun as a family. You post a few times throughout the day (To the beach! Best seafood ever! OMG so tired!), using the in-app location feature to share the location of your weekend or vacation adventures with your public or private followers. One need not even include pics of your kids to let everyone know where to find you.
While we're on the topic, I also recommend looking into disabling your location tracking.
3. Digital Photo Theft
One thing many of us don’t consider when we post pics of our kids online is that once those photos are uploaded, what happens to them is out of our hands. Here are 2 scenarios every parent who posts photos on the internet should be aware of.
We think of them as hilarious. Witty. Lighthearted. We follow accounts that are only hilarious memes because sometimes you just gotta laugh and, admittedly, some people are way better at putting these things together than either of us. But what happens when a photo of yourself or your kids are stolen and turned into memes? Two examples here and here.
If you were to perform an Instagram search for #adoptionRP or #orphanRP you would find photos of other peoples’ children, stolen and reposted by strangers who pretend to be their parents, the kids themselves or prospective adopters. It’s known as an emerging dark corner on Instagram for role playing. Other role-players join in and they create stories. Stories range from creepy to sexual. According to the Daily Dot, There are a few different narrative threads within this community: Those who adopt and proceed with normal parental tasks and those who get abusive. More here.
Experts recommend watermarking your photos to protect your rights. I’m not sure how that holds up, as they can often be deleted by other apps with “healing” features and the laws around this get fuzzy. Digimarc is a software (typically used by professional photographers and graphic designers/artists) that watermarks photos invisibly (digitally) and searches for locations your pics have been used on the web. You really have to wonder, is it worth it?
We interact with them throughout every day. With appliances in our homes, at work and on the web. At a basic level, their job is to pool a bunch of information, organize that data and arrive at a result. The outcome can be to resolve a problem, automate for speed and accuracy, or serve up an experience for you, for example.
Given the deluge of data available and the rate at which that continues to grow multiplied by a lack of regulation or oversight, it would do us all well to better understand the future of big data and algorithms and to think through the long-term impact of merging of our kids’ digital lives with their real lives. Our public records and online behavior is tracked nonstop, which creates detailed profiles of us that is bought and sold by data brokers and leveraged by digital marketers. This is an example of how terribly wrong it can go when we put too much trust in algorithms and when there is big money involved. And this brief Ted Talk is an excellent example of how human bias plays into the big picture:
5. Future Implications
If you upload one photo every other day about your kiddo for a whole year, she’ll have about 180 photos living on the internet. Let’s say those photos celebrated her birth or adoption, some milestones, day-to-day life (great days/tough days/highlights/lowlights and potentially embarrassing “isn’t she cute” or “kids are the worst!”), a few holidays, vacations and a birthday. This is your everyday life and this is what you do because you love your kid and want to share her with the people most important to you. You have privacy settings set (for now) and you feel good about your sharing. You roll on like this (traditionally speaking) through infancy, toddlerhood, preK and Kindergarten. Without even realizing it, you’ve established a treasure chest of data on your kiddo which will ultimately be fed into algorithms that will learn about her over time.
There’s a lot going on here. Experts warn of college admissions offices in the habit of perusing applicants’ social media accounts to aid in making their offer decisions. Are they perusing their parents’ accounts as well? And what about group photos and consent?
Are we setting our kids up to have their identities stolen? Are we posting embarrassing photos of them and framing them as endearing, which could lead to them being bullied as a tween or preteen? And what about consent - at what age do we engage in conversations about any of this?
Perhaps I’m posing more questions than answers here. I’m ok with that. For me, the learning happens in the reflection. I have to ask myself, why am I posting the pictures I post? What’s my end goal here? Each family is unique and will answer these questions in their own way. How they choose to approach internet safety now and as the web changes will evolve. If there’s one thing I’m certain about for my family, however, it’s that complacency is not an option.