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Opinion: Embarrassing photos posted online? There are ways of having them removed...

In the age of smartphones, embarrassing pictures of our more indiscreet behaviour can have a way of haunting us.

Fergal Crehan

IT’S THE NEW year, and you’re back at work, hopefully with happy – if hazy – memories of parties and celebrations. Some of us might be cringing at the thought of something we did, late at night. Thankfully, everyone else was probably pretty drunk too, and apart from a bit of slagging, no harm has been done. But for some of us, the damage may be longer term. In the age of the smartphone, embarrassing pictures of some of our more indiscreet behaviour has a way of haunting us for many years after the event.

Never mind that the photo was taken out of context, or is completely unrepresentative of your usual behaviour, it is still the first image that pops up when you google your name. And that means it’s also the first image that pops up when a potential client, employer or (shudder) mother-in-law googles you.

Worse, what if there is even more intimate material about you online? Its not just Jennifer Lawrence that has recently had to worry about intimate photos being hacked from the cloud. Less well known but far greater in scale was the hack sometimes referred to as the Snappening. This was a hack of at least 100,000 Snapchat photos harvested from the Snapsave app. Most of these images were not of famous people. Most were presumably grainy and poorly lit. So what was the point of the hack? Its not like there’s a shortage of consensually obtained nude images on the internet. The conclusion has to be that it is the very lack of consent that attracts people. It seems there are people out there who get their kicks out of invading people’s privacy.

Certainly, this explains the prevalence of “revenge porn”, where people post intimate images of their exes online. Some American States have made it a criminal offence to post this material, and there are moves afoot in the UK to do the same.

These moves are welcome, but they don’t really solve anyone’s immediate problem. You don’t want someone to judge you, or tell you that you should have been more careful in the first place. But you also may not want to get into a very public legal battle that might ultimately do your reputation more harm than good. You just want the sensitive material taken off the internet. And you want it done now, not in six months’ time, after a court case.

But it can’t be done – the internet’s a lawless wild west, right?

There are actually lots of laws that can be used to remove unwanted material about you from the internet. And most of them don’t require you to go running to the High Court with an expensive team of lawyers, drawing more attention to you and to the very material you’re trying to have taken down. Being in Ireland is a definite plus, too, as most of the big social media players are based here.

For example, the Data Protection Act protects you against the processing of your information without your consent. This would include any image taken without your permission, or even an image taken with your permission but placed online without it.

Copyright laws also provide some protection. If you can assert that you own the copyright in the material, you can rely on international copyright.

And then there’s the “Right To Be Forgotten”, the result of a recent EU court case where Google was required to remove from its index information which is inaccurate, misleading or distressing.

This isn’t rewriting history – after all, since when is a photo of you in your underwear a part of the historical record? It’s just a recognition that if you can place personal information online, you can surely take it off again. And if you didn’t place it online yourself, why should you have to suffer because of a breach of privacy that you played no part in?

Not everything that goes online can come down. Maybe you’re a public figure, or maybe you just had the misfortune to go viral before you had time to do anything about it. But for the rest of us, privacy is a human right whose time has come.

Fergal Crehan is a barrister, and is Managing Director of privacy consultants The Hit Team at www.TheHitTeam.com

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Fergal Crehan

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