That naughty picture you posted on the internet - is it really out there forever?

There’s a standard admonition that you hear nowadays, which is, "never post naked pictures of yourself on the Web, because they’ll be there “forever” (or at least for the remainder of your natural life, when it might matter to you). Furthermore, you are told, there’s facial recognition software being refined even as we speak, which will let anyone, even 40 years from now, pin your name and address to that photo, and you’ll be screwed in all kinds of ways, or maybe just the regular way.

Okay, but- an anecdote. Ten years or so ago, I saved a bunch of amateur shots of woman from a site we’ll call Whip 'Em Out-dot-com. The other day, I looked through those old pics and wondered if they were indeed still out there. I went back to Whip 'Em Out, still functioning, and searched for one particular image of a woman we’ll call Toots. Not there. Apparently Whip 'Em deletes their older material, for whatever reason, and a ten-year-old picture will no longer show up.

But would Toots not likely have spread to other corners of the Web? Let’s pretend that every picture posted on every site is saved by someone - maybe 50 someones. How likely is it to pop up again, now or in the future?

I went to the popular image search engine, TinEye, which lets you upload an image, which it claims to compare with billions of others, and returns results of where else it can be found. (It seems to be forgiving enough to recognize a picture that has been cropped, resized or otherwise altered, even radically.) I gave it Toots, and it found no examples of her anywhere on the Web.

Intrigued, I did the same thing with 50 or so of my other Whip 'Em ladies, and was surprised at how rarely anything turned up - maybe one out of six - and when it did, it was often to be found on multiple sites. What these “hits” did have in common was, each seemed to have a standout feature - mainly very attractive women, but pose, lighting, setting etc. seemed to count too. But run of the mill pictures, even assuming they exist in multiple caches out there, seem not to get reposted much and tend to go away after awhile.

The unanswered question is, how efficient is TinEye or any other image scouring program at finding matches? Still, with that as a caution, I would amend the advice to, your naked shot might be out there forever, but probably won’t be if you make sure to pick one that’s rather ordinary. I would say that, since a conservative estimate of the number of such pics would be squillions, the half-life of one not particularly special photo is rather short.

Sayings are not literally true. It you wanted to be literal, the proper saying would be something like “never post naked pictures of yourself on the Web, because there is the possibility that the picture could be saved by someone and posted at some later date and this is a risk you shouldn’t take even if you can’t calculate the probability of it happening.”

That’s not as interesting or as pithy as a saying, but it’s what people really mean.

You can search for images the same way via google, give that a shot. When I’ve done it, google was able to find more photo matches than tineye.

It’s still an interesting quetsion, of how permanent the stuff people put on the internet is. Take the case of Usenet newsgroups, the forerunner of web forums like the SDMB. I remember many years ago when Google Groups was launched, it was assumed that everything ever posted to newsgroups would thenceforth be availabe forever. But, even taking into account Google’s practice of not archiving certain newsgroups on request, there are posts that I know I made in the 1990s to mainstream newsgroups, that are nowhere to be found now.

I’m guessing that what happens is, rather than some deliberate policy of deleting old material, every now and then some sysadmin somewhere thinks “we’re running a bit short of space there, do we really need all that old stuff that nobody ever reads?” (I am a sysadmin myself. Running out of space is a perpetual concern.) Or, some old server dies, or some part of your storage, and it was just a load of legacy/archive stuff. Somehow, restoring it never seems to be a priority.

And so, bit by bit, the “old stuff” disappears, unless it is old stuff that people still use.

When the space shuttle Challenger went kablooie in 1986, of course that was much discussed on Usenet. I recently found those discussions on-line somewhere. (I googled my own name to see what people were saying about me, and found them.) OTOH, I didn’t find any of my old 1986-era posts.

I wondered about the propriety of putting such old-like stuff on-line. Today, there’s a reasonably well-known understanding that anything anyone puts out there is liable to be forever. Back in 1986, I don’t think there was any such understanding.

I don’t agree. People really do believe it. One of many cultural panic-points that deserves a bit of scrutiny.

Now my post may beg to be shot down; the proposition that my creaky little experiment proves anything might be foolish - but I’m willing to hear from anyone who can tell me otherwise and back it up.

Day 1, Minute 1 of my freshman year of college in 1999 was “Be careful what you put on discussion groups, it’ll haunt you forever!” And it was told to us in a matter-of-fact “you should know this already” kind of way.

Of course, I always thought it was a silly statement to make since there’s almost no way to link the Joe Smith who posted his comments about the Challenger back in 1986 with the Joe Smith of 2012 that’s standing in front of you. This gets even sillier when you remember that a lot of stuff was posted under fake usernames.

Keep in mind much of the material can be found if it needed to be - if Toots suddenly ran for president, How many guys like you are out there with it saved somewhere and can come up with it ? How likely would it be that the site it was originally posted on might have all the archives somewhere on some random backup tapes, hard drives, etc ? It needn’t actually be findable on the net immediately & indexed to be “out there forever”

This inspired me to look for my AFCA posts, and I found I was mentioned there in 2011, close to a decade after I last posted.

The girl who recently killed herself over cyber bullying offers some evidence for the truth of it. Apparently, she flashed someone over a video chat. This person saved the pic and posted it to Facebook. She asked for it to be taken down, but people had already saved it… it got sent to friends at her school, and followed her to two other new schools. Since she was 13 or something at the time, I’m sure more than a few perverts are trading copies out there somewhere.

That all makes it true enough to be worth repeating.

It certainly is true on the same level as similar saying like: “Drunk driving kills” “Only you can prevent forest fires” or “Cigarettes cause cancer.” I mean, no one protests those sayings because they’re actually untrue 90+% of the time. They’re true often enough that they remain valid warnings.

People SHOULD believe it. That they get lucky and it disappears sometime in the future doesn’t change the necessity of thinking it. Think of it as a thought experiment amounting to asking someone if they’re really sure they want to do something that will embarrass them in the future.

It’s a precautionary saying, something that you should always assume to be true. It obviously can never be absolutely 100% true. Even if Big Brother was archiving everything you ever sent on the Internet for later perusal, there is always the possibility one of his petabyte drives could go kablooie at the wrong time and you would be lucky that your kinky sex pictures with an elephant happened to disappear. Not something you ever want to depend on though.

See the Wayback Machine. Not saying that it archives everything that ever happened anyway on the Internet and its predecessors; just using it as an illustration of things people might decide to do.

I’ve always assumed it to be true, but saw an opposite effect: not that scores of people will find their lives ruined by naked pictures, but that naked pictures floating up will be…well, still a big embarassment for many people but much less traumatic and stigmatizing.

Hurm, I sent a naughty internet chat video to a boyfriend back in college and I have always wondered if he was vindictive enough to post it without me knowing or show it/give copies to friends. But, at 29, much fatter, much older, and much more married with kids than I was back then, I think it wouldn’t bother me one bit if he had. Racy video me is not me anymore.

Tineye sucks. I just tried it with a image I use regularly on several websites, google based accounts included, and it came up with nothing.

This is part of the problem.
Not only is stuff saved, but people show it to their friends. Your ffrinds friends may either copy it when hes not looking, or he shared it.

People download stuff and then upload it to chat sites, and others download it. When someone tried to take a video down, for example, whether sex or copyright issues, it magically pops back up because a thousand or more people have it.

Stuff can return to chat sites. People pass stuff around on those chat sites saying - anyone got more of this? Stuff could surface years later. If you have any interesting features - tatoos, etc. - it just makes it easier to confirm identity.

People find stuff on old hard drives. Computers (and now phones) could get stolen and their contents dumped. With iCloud and similar services, your photos can be hacked from a web service even if your computer or phone is off.

Take the case of David Asimov, who has Aspergers and seemed to obsess about collecting video from the internet. Im sure there are similar people who obsess about still images; the image you think is gone is probably stored on someones hard disk to dump back out from time to time; and the only thing keeping it obscure is the sheer volume of similar data. Sites like google image, TinEye, and eventually facial recognition software, will probably help people find anything - limited only by privacy laws that only apply in a few countries.

(Take a lesson from the Valerie Plame fiasco. Plame had a company listed on her resumee, which was online. When Cheneys toadies outed her, reporters found at least one other person listing the same unusual obscure company on his online resume. When reporters called him to ask about it, he took his resume offilne ASAP. So Cheneys boys outed two CIA spooks, not one. What`s online is online…)

It’s worse than that. In a recent podcast Dan Savage mentioned the case of someone he knows who posed for some naughty pictures for print-only circulation in another country in the pre-interweb days. A decade or so goes by and the magazine decides to digitize its image catalog and put lots of them online. Suddenly an image that the person had every expectation would never be seen by anyone local is now available to the entire world.


This is like “A gun is always loaded”. Yes, in reality many times the gun is not loaded, and you can check to make sure it is empty and then it is perfectly safe to put the barrel in your mouth and pull the trigger. There is no way an actually unloaded gun can fire and blow the top of your head off.

Ensuring that one particular image will be preserved forever is a very difficult task. Things get lost and destroyed all the time. But ensuring that a particular image is absolutely destroyed is impossible, because the nature of digital files means that they are trivial to copy, distribute and save. Put something up on a website, and the website is archived. People save local copies, even when they don’t mean to because their browser caches things. Bulk backups onto tapes are created, and then tossed onto shelves to sit there forever.

So yes, data gets lost. But usually what happens when information is lost is that you don’t have it, and can’t find it. It’s often saved somewhere, someplace, by someone, except there’s no way to find where or who or how, because that place is on a hard drive or backup tape that isn’t indexed or indexable by Google.

All good points. I never meant to suggest any photo posted on the internet would not be saved by someone, on the contrary, I went with assuming they all are (if they are of naked people, that is. The picture you posted on Ebay of the barbeque grill you were selling is less likely to exist in someone’s cache - you figure out why).

If Toots, or you, were to run for president or otherwise become suddenly famous, the chance of one of those cached copies making a sudden reappearance certainly goes up. Barring those circumstances, the point I wanted to make is you ought not to lose sleep over something you did in a moment of youthful indiscretion because, even if it’s conceivable that it could be findable “forever”, the odds are it won’t be over time (unless it’s such a remarkable image that it becomes famous of its own accord).

OTOH, who dug up the pictures of Obama at Yale, or Bush W as a cheerleader at Harvard; or Bush Sr caught on film being rescued from his downed plane in the Pacific… I once saw a picture of a crowd of hundreds celebrating something in Munich, and Hitler’s face was circled - someone not only realized he was in the crowd but picked him out.

As for more modern examples, as Bristol Palin and her “friends” found out, not everyone who says they are your friend on facebook has your privacy interests at heart, especially when cash is involved - assuming you figured out Facebook privacy settings to start with.