Losing Control: Study Concludes that 88 % of Self-Generated, Sexually Suggestive Online Images and Videos are Eventually Stolen and Uploaded to Other Websites

This blog is dedicated to a friend of mine, whose photos have been stolen from their original location and uploaded elsewhere on the internet. Her images appear on a wide array of websites: from advertisements that appear on Facebook; to relentless fake profiles filled with her pictures; to porn sites that collect and archive images of young people. Worst of all, many of these photos were taken when she was fifteen years old.[1]

It is for her that I write this blog, not simply as a member of the international legal community, but as a person seeking to bring awareness to the very serious and potentially dangerous reality that by posting images or videos to the internet you risk losing control over that content; for, if the last fifteen years has taught us anything, it’s that nothing on the internet ever truly goes away.

In a recent study, Britain’s Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) analyzed more than 12,000 sexually explicit images uploaded by young people and found that the great majority of images had been stolen and published to what the researchers call “parasite” websites. These web sites grab photos and videos from anywhere they can get it: lost or stolen cellphones, hacked private accounts on Photobucket, Flickr, or Facebook,  or from chat sites and Tumblr. (as reported by Forbes)

Here are a few of the key findings from the study:

  • The time spent on the research was 47 working hours, spread over four weeks
  • A total of 12,224 images and videos were analyzed and logged
  • The content was on 68 discrete websites
  • 7,147 were images
  • 5,077 were videos
  • 5,001 were both an image and a video
  • Of the 12,224 images/videos, 10,776 were on parasite websites
  • 88% of content was taken from the original source site
  • In only 14 instances could analysts not determine whether the site was a parasite website

Anonymous extracts from young people asking the IWF to do something about their online images and videos:

“One explicit image I took when I was young but I cannot be specific to if I was 15 or 16 because it was long ago, and I never posted it to the internet…It is coming up on the first page of [search engine] also if my name is searched and on [search engine] images for my name which could jeopardize any future career I have or if any family/friends come across it.”

“I came to regret posting photographs of myself naively on the internet and tried to forget about it, but strangers recognized me from the photographs and made lewd remarks at school. I endured so much bullying because of this photograph and the others…I was eventually admitted for severe depression and was treated for a suicide attempt.”

“…the photos were on a phone that was stolen around 2 years ago…the photos were taken when i [sic] was under 17 years old.”

“I’m an individual who was coerced into posing for this site at the age of 16, and have regretted this ever since…My parents would be horrified…I have suffered badly from depression, and every time I begin to feel good and confident about myself …I just remember these pictures and what I did.”

“Please remove this from the internet as soon as possible as one family member has already come across it… I feel like ending my life as I am so ashamed and embaressed [sic] and this has been put up without my concent.” [sic]

[1] Written with permission.


  1. Peter, I am so sorry for your friend. I also have a friend who this has happened to. It is terrible to think that someone’s image can be stolen from a social media site and put all over the internet without the person’s permission. It is comforting that some individuals have been caught and charged with identity theft for stealing photos and putting them on websites but I am afraid that it is harder to stop those who operate websites in other countries. One Massachusetts high school student had her photo stolen and placed on a foreign adult website and the police admitted that it is difficult for them to control international websites. It is crucial that families and schools educate these young adults about the consequences of posting pictures of themselves on social media websites or distributing those photos to others. In the mean time, I hope that laws, along with computer software, are being developed in order to help these suffering individuals take down these photos, seek justice and move on with their lives.

  2. Yea, it’s a tough spot to be in because it’s a very fact specific, murky area of the law that’s really uncharted. Depending on the image, manner in which that image was stolen, how that image is used and by whom, it could connect up with a crime. Obviously, if the victim in the image is underage we are talking about child pornography. But another possibility in the criminal context is Invasion of Privacy (in New Jersey, contrary to N.J.S.A. 2C: 14-9(c)). In the civil context, we are probably talking about misappropriation of likeness (though I admit to not being an expert in tort law).

    On the other hand, it’s the internet. By posting an image online, you are essentially giving up control over that image to the world- or at least to those whom you allow to see your profile page. So, for instance, one of the elements of Invasion of Privacy is that the image was disseminated without permission. One has to wonder, is permission implicit in the posting? Moreover, in prosecuting such a case, you have to worry about jury nullification; i.e., a jury saying, “That’s the risk you took by posting your picture online.”

    The issue of foreign would-be defendants hosting images on servers in foreign countries is a whole other problem all together. There really is no legal remedy available- at least that I see. Of course, the US has been effective in aggressively reaching its long arm across oceans to prosecute piracy on behalf of the MPAA, but against the international ‘photo stealer’ there is apparently no recourse for an individual.

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