Your Picture Online? There May Be Trouble Ahead


So you’ve uploaded all your photos to a social network and they’ve been tagged. Your profile picture is on Facebook, Twitter and now Google+ and your picture avatar follows you everywhere online from forums to blog comments. That’s okay isn’t it? There’s nothing to worry about, everyone else is doing it so it must be fine… I’d rather this than a cartoon or clip art for my avatar.

And it may well be okay, but there have been recent developments which may just start the alarm bells ringing. But first, can I take you back to a time before Facebook and social networking. In the early days online it was fine to have a cool username and cartoon avatar as part of your online persona. I came across this post on identity management in cyberspace (written in 2002 – pre-social networking) which brought that home nicely. It wasn’t necessary to bring your real personal identity online in those days. In fact there are even a bunch of terms used to describe your online persona: handle, alias, nickname, moniker, alter ego. But with the rise and rise of Facebook, Twitter  and now Google+, they want real names, with profile pictures encouraging real identity aggregated between online services. It seems now it’s time to be real online – real names and real tagged photos to identify us. But as I’ve said before on several occasions, we’re still breaking new ground with online social networking. We’re only about 5 years into this fledgling phenomenon. It’s not been done before and it remains to be seen whether being so open with our real names and photos will have a scary downside in say 10 to 15 years time when so much information has been released by us and gathered by… who knows who? So I’ve always been a little reluctant to put too much personal information out there. But not so for my business – online directories with real names and business details is surely okay. But hear me out, particularly on online photos of yourself.

Facial recognition

It’s not very hard to imagine that in the next few years our mobile devices will feature facial recognition technology – software to put names to faces in photos. Trial facial recognition software, PittPatt,  developed at Carnegie Mellon University can take a photo of a stranger and, using information from the cloud (Facebook, etc), can track down their real identity in minutes. It’s only a short hop from there to search and dig out other information like address, email and mobile phone numbers linked to the photo and identity and we surely have the scary possibility of some stranger snapping you with their mobile phone and fairly quickly getting hold of a lot of useful personal information about you.


But then I could be totally wrong, and judging by the millions  of people quite happy to put so much information online, I probably am. But at least spare a thought for those of us who continue to operate under pseudonyms and don’t want to put up photos of ourselves. It’s not because we want to hide behind a front and dish out stuff without fear of recrimination. There may just be a good reason now for trying to preserve our anonymity.

Have you every googled your name and been surprised at how much detail comes up? Even though some of it is out of date and quite misleading, it’s all virtually impossible to remove once it’s out there. But people are making judgements of you based on what they find. You could also try googling your phone number + city/town and see if that brings up other aspects of your identity for all to see.

You don’t have to go the real name route online. After a lot of pressure, Google has finally backtracked on the real name requirement for Google+ and soon you will be able to sign up under a pseudonym. So perhaps it’s time to think again about online photos and online identity before it’s too late. Or am I just being way too paranoid? Drop a comment below.

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