Photo Sharing Privacy Policies: Myth and Reality, Part I

Have you looked carefully at the privacy policies on your favorite photo sharing sites? They may not exactly be what you’d expect.

Privacy policies are an accepted part of the Internet experience these days. Of course, there are those who believe you shouldn’t be uptight about privacy if you’re willing to participate in something as public as the World Wide Web, especially if you’re going to post photographs. We happen to disagree.

Just because you’re willing to share your artistry with the world doesn’t mean you should be fair game for every scammer and marketer out there. In this two-part article, we’ll offer some advice on the current state of photo sharing privacy on the Web, and how to maintain yours — starting with a personal example.

The SmugMug Incident

It’s a myth to think that all privacy policies are created equal. In fact, some have loopholes big enough to drive a truck through, offering public access to your information from unexpected quarters. We recently learned this firsthand, shortly after we started a photo sharing advice site called Photo Sharing Nuggets.

Just because a site promises not to release your personal information doesn’t mean your privacy might not be violated in another way. Here’s a good example: as part of the process of getting PSN in gear, we joined the popular photo sharing site SmugMug, so we could learn more about the features it offered.

Two weeks later, we received a Google Alert telling us that our SmugMug account had been found and indexed. We’d run afoul of an unexpected loophole in their privacy policy: as it turns out, in SmugMug, you have to deliberately turn off a setting if you don’t want search engines to find your account.

Needless to say, we didn’t expect our account to become public — we created our account only so our team members could learn about how to use SmugMug, for the benefit of our readers. It’s not a big deal, since they do offer the option to turn the feature off, but you won’t realize that if you don’t read the policy very closely.

Lesson Learned

One thing we learned from Google’s discovery of our SmugMug account was that privacy policies can be surprisingly variable from one photo sharing site to another. SmugMug allows viewers to buy user photos, so it makes sense for them to publicize a new account by making it “spider food” for a search engine.

Not all photo sharing sites do this automatically — in fact, most allow you to specify whether you want to make your photos public or private. But enough do that you shouldn’t just skim the legalese when you sign up for a new site; give it a good, thorough look, and be willing to back off if you don’t like it.

In Part II of this report, we’ll take a look at the privacy policies of several other popular photo sharing sites, and tell you how they differ.