How Photo Sharing Sites Can Stop Most Nude Photo Leaks

photobucket-logoLast week’s nude celebrity photo leak drew public to something that

However, nude photo are not rare occurrences. Every single day dozens of people, mostly women, experience the horror of having their intimate and private photos leaked online and shared by strangers without their permission.

But while some of these leaks come in the form of revenge pornography, where others leak the photos intentionally and with malice, and hacking, most of these photo leaks are crimes of opportunity that do little more than take advantage of a simple mistake.

It’s a mistake that photo sharing services, in particular Photobucket, make far too easy to commit and could, in most cases, be prevented by a simple change in how photo sharing sites work.

However, that change may not be good for the photo sites themselves and, as such, represent a conflict of interest between those sites and their users’ privacy.

How Nude Photo Leaks Happen

Nude, sexual and other private images typically leak online through one of three ways:

  1. Revenge Pornography: This is when a third party who received the images/videos, maliciously leaks them online either to hurt the subject of the photos or to gain some other benefit.
  2. Hacking: As with the recent nude celebrity scandal, hackers can target the various accounts of a victim and take the photos and images to be shared publicly later. This can include hacking into phones, email accounts, cloud services and more.
  3. Accident: The photos and videos are unintentionally placed in a public place on the Internet where they are found and shared before they can be made private.

Though revenge pornography received a great deal of attention with the controversy over Is Anyone Up? and similar sites and hacking has received a great deal of attention in the recent celebrity nude photo leak, accidents make up an incredibly large number of leaked nude photos, perhaps even a majority in most forums.

How does it work? It’s simple, a user accidentally uploads sexual images to a public folder and other users spot it, download the images and share them (often describing the haul as “plunder”). It’s really that simple.

Photobucket is a popular destination for these types of images not only because the site is routinely used by young people to store private photos, but because the site offers a “Recent” page where anyone can shower new uploads to find suspect images.

If you don’t believe it’s that easy, Reddit user trizzlesizzle said it accordingly in a popular subreddit for sharing nude images:

Ok for all the newbs that found this sub and want this question answered I will answer generally. When people upload their material to photobucket, they have the option of choosing whether to make it private or public. The public content rotates on a recent images page located in the image browsing feature of pb. When an image comes up in recent images that look risque, plunderers go into that users public content and look for “win”. It’s as simple as that. There are some simple pro tricks to make the process more efficient and knowledge of the types of images to look for helps…for instance sexy selfies are usually a good clue. To reiterate, everything posted in this sub is content that the photobucket user upload to the PUBLIC web. There is no hacking or password cracking or anything.

In short, even if your photos are only actually exposed for a few moments on Photobucket, or a similar site, someone likely has grabbed it.

The subreddit involved, which I am deliberately not linking to, uses the tagline “They Should Have Known Better”, and repeatedly states that, since the images were posted publicly (even if just for a moment) they feel it is acceptable for them to share it elsewhere online. They continue posting images even after the accounts they are from go private, which they often note in their links.

This isn’t the first time Photobucket’s name has come up with leaked nude photos. In 2012 attention was drawn to “fusking” a technique that let a hacker guess the access URL to a private gallery. That technique reportedly doesn’t work anymore due to changes by Photobucket, though the site does warn that anyone with your private URL can view the images in it, even if you didn’t intend for them to see it.

But despite Photobucket’s effort to make more private albums more private, there are still countless people who have nude photos leaked via the site regularly.

Fortunately, the fix for this is fairly simple. Unfortunately, Photobucket isn’t likely to implement it.

Fixing the Problem

On the surface, the problem seems like it should be easy to fix. Simply tell people that they shouldn’t upload nude photos of themselves to the cloud, especially to public folders.

Putting the fact that this is a form of victim-blaming aside, it still isn’t that simple. With cell phones we are taking more pictures than ever of all types and we have more apps and tools than ever to sort, store, find, view and share those images.

Inevitably, mistakes are going to be made. Wrong files are uploaded, incorrect permissions are set, images are uploaded without direct knowledge and more.

This human error is compounded by the way photo sites are structured. Though photo sharing sites have pushed themselves as a place to store all of your photos, most want as many of those photos to be public as possible so they have more content for Google to index, more pages to sell ads against and, in the case of Photobucket, more images that they can sell (possibly copyright infringing) prints of.

As such, if you set up a new Photobucket account, by default, every image you upload via the Web or directly through their mobile uploader is public.

PhotoBucket Sample Upload

The exception is any photo automatically backed up from your phone, which is sent to a private “Mobile” folder.

Photobucket 2

But since most images default to public, it’s inevitable that users will upload images that were intended to be private in a public place, include nude images.

The solution to this is simple: Make uploaded images private by default and require the user to either actively enable public viewing or upload them to a “Public” folder.

While this wouldn’t prevent all mistakes, it would eliminate the vast majority and it would save countless people the embarrassment of having their nude and personal images shared across the Web.

However, doing so would greatly reduce the number of new public photos uploaded to Photbucket and other sites. It would also add steps (and friction) to those who want to share photos they upload, likely pushing those people to other services.

But which is the greater risk? Someone trying to upload a photo privately having it leak publicly or someone trying to share a photo accidentally uploading it to a private folder? The answer is pretty clear.

If nothing else, a middle ground might be having all new accounts make a conscious choice as to whether they want to be private or public by default. This would at least make the user aware that every image they’re uploading is public unless they take express steps.

It sounds like a small step, but clearly there’s a need for it.

Bottom Line

Sadly, it’s unlikely that Photobucket, or any other photo sharing site, will make private a default setting. It goes against their DNA as sharing sites, even though these sites are actively encouraging users to upload all of their images and use them for more than just sharing, but also personal photo storage.

To be clear, even though I focus primarily on Photobucket, the problem exists elsewhere too. Flickr, for example, is also public by default in much the same way. However, it’s audience is more of a professional one and it isn’t as regularly used for personal photos, despite, making a similar push to be a cloud storage system.

For accidental nude leaks, Photobucket is a perfect storm. It’s a site that makes all photos public by default, is widely used to store personal photos and is popular among young adults.

As such, Photobucket long has been and will continue to be the primary source for accidental nude photo leaks. While they may have largely fixed their earlier security issue, unless they address the “public by default” problem, no amount of security is going to prevent others from having their personal photos shared online.

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