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3 ways strangers find details about your children online

How to protect your child's privacy onlineWhen your child was born, did you announce the birth on social media? It’s something many proud parents do every day. Unfortunately ‘sharenting’ has a downside and its main victim is privacy.

With high profile issues such as Facebook’s misuse of user data and the controversy around the Australian Government’s My Health Record scheme shedding light on the public’s mistrust with regard to data handling, privacy has taken centre stage in many people’s minds. And although we think of children today as ‘born digital’, it is our job as parents to do the best job we can to protect their privacy for as long as possible.

What’s at stake? Strangers can gather quite a lot of information about your child from public forums such as social media and this increases the risk of identity theft and cyberbullying, not to mention worst-case scenarios such as paedophilia, stalking and kidnapping. We also have to consider newer technology that relies on images, like facial recognition, which has emerging consequences.

So, how do strangers compile data about your child from online sources?

3 ways strangers find details on your children online

1. Photo content

The photos themselves can be quite revealing, from capturing your child’s appearance to disclosing details you might not wish to be made public. The risk here is identity theft and cyberbullying with a possible side of stalking. Also, consider paedophilia – the photos need not be ‘indecent’ to find themselves on paedophile image-sharing sites. Australian eSafety Commission research found that about half of the images on such sites were sourced from social media and blogs. In the wrong hands, innocent snaps become quite sinister.

Photos also feed facial recognition databases. Media companies such as Facebook and Google are starting to use this technology to make automated identification easier across user accounts but the potential to use these databases for surveillance and exploitation is high.

Protection tips:

1. Carefully select the photos to share: avoid full-face images, images where the location is identifiable or photos that have details such as your child’s school.

2. If you decide to use images with any of these features, consider editing the photo to obscure these details.

3. Create a policy about concealing these details and share it with others who may be photographing your child such as friends and relatives, other parents, schools, clubs and organisations.

2. Captions, comments and tagging

Text that accompanies photos can also disclose details you might want to keep private. Posts such as birth announcements might include the child’s full name and date of birth, which puts your child at risk of identity theft. Institutions such as banks often use birth dates when authenticating accounts, so it’s best to keep these details private. Location tagging might reveal your local haunts, which increases the risk of stalking and kidnapping.

Protection tips:

1. Avoid mentioning your child’s full name or date of birth in a public forum. Consider using substitute names such as an initial or nickname.

2. Don’t be afraid to be vague. Instead of posting ‘the newest addition to our family arrived on [date]’, rephrase this to remove the specific date, for example, ‘the newest addition to our family arrived earlier this month’.

3. Tell friends and family who might post about your child not to mention their name or birth date.

3. Metadata

Metadata is information recorded about the photograph you’re taking that you can’t see, usually the time, date and GPS coordinates. Unfortunately, smartphones automatically capture this and attach it to the image so if you share the image directly onto social media platforms, strangers can access the information if they download the photo. Making location data available can increase the risk of stalking and kidnapping.

Protection tips:

1. Understand your smartphone settings. If possible, turn location services off on your camera app so location data isn’t captured.

2. Remove the metadata. You can download tools to scrub the metadata before you post.

3. Or, screenshot the image and share that instead of the original. Screenshots don’t have location metadata and they are also low-resolution so it’s hard for others to tamper with it.

The increasing pressure to share our lives through social media platforms means we now give away information about our children in an online forum we would never reveal to a stranger on the street.

Adopting a privacy-first attitude and sharing your concerns with friends and relatives, other parents and organisations such as schools will help build awareness of the consequences of loss of privacy. In time, practising privacy-first will help your child adopt a healthy approach to consent and image-sharing when they are old enough to manage their own social media accounts.

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