It’s no surprise that new threats to personal security and privacy crop up as online communities change and grow. We’ve known about "sharenting" for a while—the tendency of parents to share every milestone in their child’s life online makes lots of personal information about children readily available to people looking to nab a new identity. But now there’s a new game in town: digital kidnapping. Digital kidnappers take screen shots of pictures posted on social media, blogs, and other online sites and use them for various activities, the most prevalent of which is online role-playing. Online role-playing has been around for decades, but only recently has it sparked outrage when a subgroup of this community, baby role-players, began stealing and repurposing online photos for their game.
Some members of the baby role-playing community are snapping up images of children on photo-sharing sites such as Instagram, Flickr, Facebook as well as various blogs to use as avatars or virtual children in their game. Players either pretend to be the child or claim the baby as their own and assign friends and other players to act as online family members to the child. There are even virtual adoption agencies where a role-player can request a youngster with a distinct look, which the “agency” seeks to fill by finding a matching image online. Participants search at #babyrp to find new “babies” for adoption or get chosen as a family member.
Psychologists theorize that many of these players are teens and tweens from less-than-optimal home situations who are fantasizing about having the perfect family. When interviewed by Fox News, child psychologist Dr. Jephtha Tausig-Edwards explains why these children are acting out these fantasies online: "They're going to do this maybe because they're bored, they're going to do this maybe because maybe they want some attention," Tausig-Edwards said. "They're going to do this because perhaps they really are a little envious and they would like that beautiful child to be their own.”
Other psychologists, like Dr. Justin D'Arienzo, admit that there are darker reasons why someone might be interested in these types of pictures. The internet has become a haven for fetishists and others who practice socially deviant behaviors, including those that require children or some element of childhood for their personal fulfillment or sexual gratification. And, although the children themselves are not being exploited—the photos in many cases have been recontextualized to play out a dark or abusive fantasy. For example, a recent thread of comments on an Instagram post regarding a baby boy has one commenter asking if he or she “can have a private with a dirty baby.”
However, one of the most recent cases of digital kidnapping didn’t involve role-playing in game form. Instead, an adult male from New York, Ramon Figueroa, stole online photos of a 4-year-old girl from Dallas and posted them on his Facebook page, claiming she was his daughter. He posted numerous pictures of the little girl, with the action in each shot lovingly described by the doting “father.” Some of the captions he wrote under the pictures of the little girl were, “Girl version of me,” and “This is how she looks in the morning…she said daddy stop (taking pictures).” After being contacted by the girl’s mother about his use of the photos, he promptly blocked her from seeing his page.
Unfortunately, there is currently no law against pretending someone is related to you. This little girl’s mother had only one option: To file a complaint with Facebook, which met with little success initially. Dismayingly, Facebook merely confirmed that Mr. Figueroa’s profile met their standards and, as such, there was nothing that could be done about the pictures if he didn’t voluntarily take them down. However, after being contacted by news media, Facebook recanted and agreed to remove posts of this nature as parents report them.
In response to the laissez-faire attitude of social media websites regarding these stolen photos, concerned parents got together and launched at change.org. The hope was to force Instagram to close down all baby role-playing accounts, but either due to lack of publicity or lack of interest, it garnered only 1,047 signatures. Of course, taking down the #babyrp account won’t do much to curb other types of digital kidnapping that are cropping up worldwide. A recent investigation by Scotland’s Sunday Post uncovered numerous instances of online photo theft. Over 570 selfies of Scottish girls; more than 700 selfies from girls in Northern Ireland; and thousands from young girls around the U.K. had been stolen and uploaded to a porn site. The girls were often in their school uniforms, but there were some instances where skin or underwear was showing. When confronted, the representative for the website denied that the images existed and because the site was out of the country, there wasn’t anything further that could be done.
Another young British girl had her personal images stolen from her social media account and posted on a website that offered “hot horny singles in your local area.” When her photo popped up on a sidebar advertisement for the sex site on a friend’s computer, he called to let her know that her pictures were being used. She has since updated her Facebook privacy settings in the hopes of preventing future occurrences.
Until this issue gets more attention from legislators and stricter privacy regulations are implemented, you are the first line of defense against this kind of identity theft. Fortunately, there are things you can do to protect yourself or your loved ones from digital kidnapping.
The first and most failsafe option is to stop posting pictures online. However, if you do choose to share them, you should monitor and adjust your privacy settings so that only people you know have access. Alternately, you can choose a privacy app, such as Kidslink, that allows parents to determine who sees their photos across social media programs. For those who refuse to curtail their online sharing, there are also apps that will watermark your images to deter would-be photo borrowers. Another protective action critical for people who wish to continue unrestricted photo posting is to turn off the geolocation option on images so that they will not reveal the real-world location of your child.
Finally, if you’ve previously posted pictures without putting privacy protections in place and you’d like to see if any of them are being used without your permission, do a reverse image search on your photos. You can use a site like TinEye that offers this service for free, or you can drag an image from your computer into the search box on Google Chrome or Firefox to reverse search. You can also go to images.google.com, drag an image into the search bar and press enter. Any website on which the image appears will come up in the search results, as well as visually similar images.
Ways to steal personal information are quickly outpacing protective measures granted to internet users through general legislation or attempts at self-governance by internet entities, such as Facebook and Twitter. The deficiency of guidelines regarding the acquisition of posted photos leaves the onus of providing identity protection, particularly to minors, firmly in the hands of parents. Parents should take the time to fully understand and consider all of the ramifications of posting photos online, including reading and comprehending the privacy policies of each online forum they use. While setting up appropriate safeguards is important, it is also critical to police the distribution of the photos and information around the internet through reverse image searches so images acquired and used without permission are found quickly. The earlier a child’s photo is removed from an unknown site, the more protection that child is afforded from repercussions in the offline world.