Ever since his daughter was born, Michael Morris has been documenting her life in photos, and sharing them with friends and family on the internet.
What he didn’t know was that hundreds of strangers were watching, too.
A few days ago, Morris and his wife, Jennifer, discovered that dozens of pictures of their daughter, Margy, were circulating on the social network site, Orkut. The two-year-old’s photos had been edited to include phrases like “Lost Love Margy” and “Vivemos por ti Margy” in bright pink and purple graphics.
“We were horrified looking at all of the pictures of our daughter that had been photoshopped,” Morris said.
He said two weeks ago, he was receiving an unusual number of requests to be friends and contacts on the photo-sharing site Flickr.com. Thinking he was receiving spam, he started blocking some of these users. That's when he started to receive the messages. Morris passed some of them on to NBC4. An example is below.
“Hello, my name is Jennifer I’m 16, have time I have been following the growth of Margy, it is a happy child who loves his mother too, and also her father…Wish you authorize us to use (take care, protect) the photo of her beautiful and perfect daughter Margy. I also ask even if not authorized, please do not delete or block any pictures of it, I’ll be very sad because I want to be able to monitor its further growth, will(sic) each stage of your life.”
Margy’s parents received dozens of such messages, most in broken English, all expressing the same devotion to their daughter.
On the social media site Orkut, Morris found similar attachment to his daughter in postings. Although almost unknown in the United States, Orkut is very popular in Brazil, parts of South America, and India. One post contained an image of his daughter, splashing in a kiddie pool. Scrawled across the bottom of the photo in pink writing is the phrase: ““Margy, Eres tu, quien me completa,” which means “Margy, you who completes me.”
The Morris and his wife immediately made their entire Flickr account private.
For Michael Morris, the vice president of a technology consulting firm, this episode revealed the outlines of children’s privacy in a digital society. The average age child in an industrialized country acquires an “online footprint” at 6-months-old, internet security company AVG says. As digital cameras and social networks make documentation of family life possible in just a few clicks, a huge amount of families’ lives are readily accessible on the internet.
Some estimates say 1 in 13 people on the planet have access to social networks, and with that many users, these breaks in privacy seem inevitable. “The idea that someone’s baby is becoming an internet celebrity on the other side of the world is kind of a unique thing,” David Johnson, professor at American University's School of Communication said, “but I wouldn’t call it shocking phenomenon.”
In fact, some say that without privacy filters turned up, it’s inevitable. “We’ve been hearing this ever since people began posting pictures,” said Larry Magid, the co-director of internet watchdog ConnectSafely.org.
To Magid, safety is not the biggest concern in these kinds of incidents. “A child molester is not going to hop on a plane from Brazil, that’s not how they operate,” he said. But Magid said that when parents are thinking about what kind of privacy settings they use, they should consider how their child will feel ten years down the road. “It’s about the privacy of the child,” he said.
The episode has been jarring for the Morris family. They have filed a complaint with Orkut, which is owned by Google. “We don’t feel particularly threatened, but we do feel compromised,” Morris said. Beyond closing off access to pictures of their daughter, it is unclear what other actions are available to the family. Although they might have a claim for copyright infringement for unauthorized use of their own pictures, going after each user of their daughter’s picture legally could be a difficult or impossible route.
The best solution to this problem is to keep your pictures from getting out in the first place, said Catherine Teitelbaum, director of Child Safety Policy at Yahoo, the company that owns Flickr.
“You really do lose control of your content once you put it out in the public setting,” she said.
Google said it would not comment on individual investigations. However, a representative for the company wrote that any material that is found to be lewd, malicious, or in violation of the law will be taken down. In addition, users accounts that are found to be impersonating others are taken off the site. A full list of their Orkut policies can be found here.
“We don’t feel particularly threatened, but we do feel compromised,” Morris said about the pictures circulating on the Orkut site. “Parents should know about this, because it caught us completely off guard.”