How my face was stolen

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Some time ago we tested FindFace, a service that searches for similar photos to the one indicated in the avatar database belonging to the VK.com social network. My colleagues then discovered some interesting things. I, unfortunately, have had less pleasant experiences.

I did not take part in the tests: I was busy with something else, and besides, I do not have a profile on VK.com. Honestly, I also don’t have an account on any other network, at least not with my real data and photo – I don’t really like that. I was troubled by curiosity how the website finds similar people, so I decided to use it. And what if I find a twin of my own?

To my surprise, I found him. More precisely the profile in which my photo was set. Not only was my face on it, but also the background, a cat on a well-known arm, a painting on the wall. And the photo was taken from the same angle. In other words, my photo was first on the search list. Yes, someone has set a picture of me on their profile.

The owner of this profile also searched the internet for photos of strange-looking people and signed them as his relatives and friends. For some reason I was in his collection as well, but it looked like he liked my photo enough that he decided to use it as his own avatar.

After discovering that someone was hiding behind my photo, two questions came to my mind. First: how did this person get my photo? Second: How can I regain control of my photos and the web? I knew who and when took this photo of me, and even where it was posted: in a private blog on LiveJournal. And while it shouldn’t have leaked out of there, it did.

Searching for a photo helped me identify the path it took. A few years ago, when LiveJournal was about to shut down (again), someone was promoting an alternative site called Dreamwidth to replace it. For a while, anyone could access all Dreamwidth posts, and the photos were then apparently indexed by engines. As a result, the photo is still searchable by typing „male and female”, even though the post itself can no longer be accessed.

The search results turned out to be even more fascinating: my photo was used not only on LiveJournal, but also in another social network, Fotostrana, in the Ukrainian automotive forum, forum for women (in the photo collection „Men and cats”), on the site with amateurs photos and many dead pages that only Google remembers.

When I look at my reflection in the mirror, I don’t understand why the photo became so popular. The cat is probably to blame for this. Nevertheless, I don’t like seeing my photos on the internet, so I decided to act. I have sent a request to remove the photo to all the above-mentioned websites. Here are the results of my crusade.

I didn’t care about dead pages – nobody visits them anymore, so it’s a waste of energy. The amateur photo site was the easiest: anyone who believes that a photo infringes copyright can submit it. My case was slightly different, however, my face took up more than 50% of the photo, so I decided I had at least partial ownership. The site removed the photo without asking me for any evidence.

The women’s forum didn’t reply, but the post containing my photo was removed. The Ukrainian forum replied after a few weeks and asked for the proof I sent, but that changed nothing. The user who used my photo only posted four posts, three years ago, and then disappeared later, so I decided to let go in this case. Then I had to deal with social networks.

I was pleasantly surprised by the Fotostrana website. Their administrators replied to my message the next day, asking them to send them a photo of themselves and a relevant message to their support department, and consequently the photo was deleted. Also, the user who used my photo had their account blocked until they changed their avatar. However, in my opinion, he set up some random ones – I saw them on many websites marked as „Mobsters of the Word”.

In turn, my communication with VK.com reached an epic level. At first the tech support couldn’t understand what I wanted from them. Employees said that if I wanted to restore access to my account, I needed to prove that it was me on the avatar. I was tempted to take over this account – after all, I was in the picture – but I’m an honest man and didn’t want to lie to the VK.com administrators.

I was talking to the wall. I asked for the photo to be removed, they asked for the ID I sent them and then the conversation died. Time passed, so I asked what was the matter with my photo. Then the cycle began anew. And so four times.

Eventually I realized tech support apparently isn’t getting my ID. I figured their email might not allow large email messages. I don’t know for sure if that was the problem, but the next time I uploaded my photo to the hosting site and sent them a link the situation was miraculously resolved.

The person who captured my photo was blocked by VK.com for a few days, and I was asked to inform the administrators when „my” avatar was changed. He didn’t stay, so I reported this person again, and as a result, he was blocked again – this time for longer. Eventually it was permanently blocked.

I am convinced that I am not the only one who encountered such a problem. Search for your photos on the internet – you may be surprised when it turns out that not only you are using your photo. If you don’t want to sit idle and want to do something about it, I strongly encourage you to do so. Now at least you know what to do.

My tips will help you avoid such situations or, if it is too late, you will solve them.

  • Pay attention to how and where your photos are posted.
  • When you see someone has used your photo on a social network, don’t panic. All legal social networks have their own procedures for such cases and are unlikely to cause any problems when it comes to deleting photos or blocking accounts.
  • It is better to use file sharing services when sending your proof photos as email may have its limitations. At the end, don’t forget to delete the photo.