Selfies – Have your social media image been stolen?

Wednesday 20 July, 2022

Did you know, your personal selfies and any images on your social media channels could have been scraped without your?

The endless expansion of social media use has made the subject of online privacy a hot topic. Personal information and images can be a lucrative source revenue for companies around the world by selling your information on to third parties. 

As AI technology improves and expands across the internet, and in particular social media, the ability of some companies to “scrape” selfies from social media accounts and then create vast databases has increased. 

UK report highlights theft of social media account data

A recent report from the UK’s data protection watchdog has highlighted an incredibly worrying example of how people’s social media images are being scraped and stored in huge databases. 

A US based company, Clearview AI, has been issued with a penalty notice valuing around £7.5m along with an enforcement notice that orders them to stop gathering and using personal information, including images, from all UK residents. 

They have been widely engaged in the highly controversial practice of scraping information from public social media accounts and creating an AI database containing a staggering over 20 billion facial images from across the world, including the UK. 

To make matters worse, all of this was conducted without the consent of, or even awareness of, the people they were targeting. This AI database was then being sold on to organisations, such as law enforcement agencies, across the world. The enforcement has ordered that all UK residents’ data be removed from the database so that it cannot be used anywhere in the world.

Why are selfie images being stolen?

The resulting databases provides the company with the ability to then identify the individuals and subsequently monitor their behaviours which can then be sold on. 

As part of a statement that accompanied the enforcement, the U.K.’s Information Commissioner, John Edwards, stated:

“Clearview AI Inc has collected multiple images of people all over the world, including in the U.K., from a variety of websites and social media platforms, creating a database with more than 20 billion images. The company not only enables identification of those people, but effectively monitors their behaviour and offers it as a commercial service. That is unacceptable. That is why we have acted to protect people in the U.K. by both fining the company and issuing an enforcement notice.

People expect that their personal information will be respected, regardless of where in the world their data is being used. That is why global companies need international enforcement. Working with colleagues around the world helped us take this action and protect people from such intrusive activity”.

In response, a statement that has been attributed to Lee Wolosky, who is a partner at U.S. law firm Jenner and Block, Clearview AI said:

“While we appreciate the ICO’s desire to reduce their monetary penalty on Clearview AI, we nevertheless stand by our position that the decision to impose any fine is incorrect as a matter of law. Clearview AI is not subject to the ICO’s jurisdiction, and Clearview AI does no business in the U.K. at this time.”

Social Media data will always be scraped, bought and sold

This case has further highlighted the problems with social media and the ease at which personal information can be obtained by third party organisations for profit. Many social media users believe that, if they have their posts and accounts locked down to family and friends only, with no public access then they are safe. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

The initial post is safer than one made entirely public, but the issues arise once the post is shared amongst other groups. These can easily find their way into the public domain, as they are no longer controlled by the originator, where they are then opened up for the scraping we have mentioned. 

How sharing across social media platforms raises the risk of data scraping

How to steal social media images

Protecting yourself from data scraping

Blackphone have long been advocates of online privacy and the protection of personal information alongside the business interests of organisations across the world.  

The most prominent way to protect your personal information and imagery from this type of harvesting is to remove yourself from social media and delete your accounts. Although this won’t stop your previous posts from being seen on other accounts, it will help to protect you moving forward. 

We believe the nature of this example further highlights the risks posed by not protecting your online activity or by not being aware of the methods that are used to obtain personal information. 

If you are worried about your mobile phone being a hot source for data theft, give our mobile security experts a call on +44 (0)871 666 9 666.

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