Know Your Rights: What To Do When Your Private Photos Are Leaked

Private Photo Leaks: Know Your Rights

It’s your worst nightmare. Those intimate photos you intended to be completely private are now being passed around campus–or worse, they’ve been posted on the Internet. Or maybe they’re still safe, but someone you once trusted is now threatening to leak them, leaving you feeling powerless and scared. This horrifying invasion of privacy doesn’t just happen to celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence. In a 2013 study, security company McAfee reported that 1 in 10 ex-partners have threatened to expose risque photos of their ex online and nearly 60% of these threats have been carried out. Though we like to believe we can trust our significant others, friends, and even iCloud passwords, it’s important to know your rights in case this ever happens to you.

What the Law Says

Whether or not you believe leaking another person’s private photos is a “sex crime”, it’s still a crime in many jurisdictions. Even in states with no specific law against private photo leaks, there are other related legal rights that protect you.

  • Know your local laws. 16 states in the USA currently have laws that criminalize releasing private, risque photos of another person. The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative hosts a great interactive map that will tell you the laws in your state. In England and Wales, leaking private, risque photos of another person without their consent will become a criminal offense this year under an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill. The practice is also illegal in Israel, the Philippines, and parts of Australia.
  • Copyright law is on your side. If the photos in question are “selfies” (i.e. taken/created by you), you own the copyright to them and they cannot be published without your consent. Specific copyright laws are different in every country, but in general, you own the right to your selfies.
  • Privacy law is also on your side. In the US, the court case Woods v. Hustler sets a precedent for risque photos and privacy law. “Public disclosure of private fact” (in which the “private fact” is one’s unclothed or partially unclothed figure) is considered an invasion of privacy,  which means that you can file a lawsuit against an offender. This has been used in other private photo leak cases.
  • If you’re underage, any private, risque photos are always a felony. Anyone who releases or threatens to release these photos of you is committing a crime. It is important, however, to remember that if you took the photos yourself you could be implicated as well.

Why These Laws Matter

Now that you know the law, how can you use it to your advantage?

  • If your photos have not been leaked yet, and someone is threatening you: Let the person know that this is illegal and a form of abuse. If they are using the threat to coerce you into doing something, stand your ground. Inform them that the law is on your side and that you are prepared to take legal action if necessary. Linking them to this article or related web pages can help you convince them to back down. Seek help from a counselor or other trusted person if necessary; many colleges have counselors or an ombudsman who can be especially helpful if you’re being threatened by another student. Lastly, make sure you document all threats that have been made against you; you may need them as evidence.
  • If your photos have already been leaked: Notify the person that they have committed a crime and that you will be taking action. Now is the time to seek legal advice. There are hotlines run by activist groups available in the US and the UK. There are certain legal steps you can take on your own, even before you have a lawyer. If your photos have been posted online and you own the copyright, submit a DMCA take down notice to the website. If the website is a social network like Facebook, there are often specific departments to assist you. File a report with your local law enforcement agency, including your college police if another student is involved. If they try to dismiss your complaint, reference the laws that apply to your area and stand your ground.
  • Before it happens to you: While no form of abuse is the victim’s fault, prevention is always important. First, if you choose to take these photos at all, make sure your devices are secure. Always keep a passcode on your smartphone, and avoid uploading your photos to any “cloud” storage systems (Google Drive, iCloud, etc). If your smartphone is set to automatically upload photos to iCloud–which is how Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities were hacked–keep your iCloud password secure and unique from other passwords you may use. It’s best to change your password at least every six months, and use two-step verification whenever possible. This way, if one of your accounts or devices is compromised, everything else will stay safe. If you choose to share private photos of yourself, make sure you tell the recipient in writing (texting, email, etc. count) that the photos are not to be shared or reproduced. This prevents someone from claiming they “didn’t know” they didn’t have your permission. Lastly, make sure all services you use to share photos have secure, unique passwords and two-step verification when possible–this includes Instagram/Twitter DMs, Snapchat, and iMessage.

No matter what happens with your private photos, remember that it is never your fault, you do not deserve this, and there is help out there.

The above article is not meant as a substitution for or equivalent to advice from a licensed attorney or counselor.

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Sarah delos Santos

Student by day, freelancer by night, obsessed with cats 24/7. I believe in peace, professionalism, and the power of positive thinking.