By Praveen Kannan and Anna Strokolyst The Hotspot Shield team believes the internet should be open and secure …
Selfies are a rapidly growing trend, with data indicating that selfies make up nearly a third of all photos taken by people age 18 to 24. Roughly half of all men and significantly more than half of all women have taken a selfie at some point.
What many people don’t realize, however, is that these seemingly innocent self-pics can harbor some serious threats. Read on to find out how posting a selfie really can get you hacked, and what you can do to limit these dangers.
The Data Contained in a Selfie
Most photos taken on a smartphone get tagged with the exact coordinates of the location where the picture is taken. These photos also contain metadata that records the date and time from when they were taken.
While you may post a selfie to show how great your outfit looks in the morning, that picture also can tell any savvy hacker exactly where your bedroom is, what time you’re awake, and where you’re getting dressed in the morning.
Over time, a collection of cute selfies could tell someone where you work, attend school, live, and hang out. A regular pattern may reveal your favorite weekend hot spots, where you get your morning coffee, or what groups and activities you’re involved in. The problem is compounded when teens and children post selfies — they’re potentially giving this type of detailed information to any online predator with access to the pictures.
In 2011, a 27-year-old man in Glendale named Karen “Gary” Kazaryan attempted an elaborate extortion scheme using nude and semi-nude pictures of women. The man hacked Skype, email, and Facebook accounts and searched for compromising photos. Using the victims’ photos and personal information, he then reached out to their contacts. Posing as the women, Kazaryan attempted to convince their contacts to send him more nude or semi-nude pictures.
With all these photos in hand, Kazaryan threatened to post the pictures to Facebook if the victims didn’t meet his demands. When investigators searched his home, they found approximately 3,000 compromising pictures of women. Some were stolen via online hacking. Kazaryan subsequently pled guilty to identity theft and unauthorized access to a protected computer in 2013, and he received a 60-month sentence.
This man isn’t the only person to use selfies for nefarious purposes. Speaking on the dangers faced by the cyber generation, Katie Koestner told the story of a 16-year-old boy who filmed himself performing sexual acts at the request of a pretty girl he was talking to in Europe. The video ended up on YouTube, and the boy’s parents received a message demanding payment in order for the video to come down.
The Long Life of a Selfie
It’s important for posters to realize that selfies are virtually immortal. While you can take the photo down, you can’t completely erase its existence. In just seconds, anyone who sees a photo can capture a screenshot of the image or drag it onto their desktop. This allows selfies to live indefinitely on an untold number of computers.
Seeking a way to limit the lifespan of the selfie, many users have turned to Snapchat, a popular app that offers the chance to share limited time selfies. Unfortunately, the app isn’t as safe and secure as it may seem. A group of hackers highlighted a flaw in the programming by hacking Snapchat and posting usernames and phone numbers of over 4 million users. And, as Gizmodo writer Jesus Diaz observed last year, it’s even possible to save images from Snapchat without the sender noticing.
Selfies and Social Engineering Threats
Social engineering is a type of hacking that’s often overlooked. Most people think of hacking as breaking into a computer network using malicious code. Social engineering is a very different kind of hack that focuses on psychological manipulation. Using data, photos, and information that’s unwittingly shared online, hackers using social engineering may steal your identity and pose as you to gain access to valuable information. Your social profile could also make you the target of a social engineering scam.
If you post selfies that give criminals valuable information about your habits, they can use this data to exploit your weak points. If someone knows where you work, what you’re interested in, or what your latest project is, then they can target you through any number of social networks. Among other schemes, this information could then potentially be leveraged as part of a spear-phishing attack on your company or place of business.
Post information about your latest invention, and unscrupulous criminals can pose as licensing professionals asking for copies of your project information. Using your photos and personal information, criminals can create a social media account impersonating you and target your friends and family members asking for passwords, financial information, or other valuable data.
Selfies and Revenge Porn
Naked selfies are the fourth most common selfie category. Most people share these pictures with trusted partners, but the usage of these pics can sometimes take a shocking twist when the relationship ends. An entire industry has popped up around the creation of revenge porn. Several websites exist exclusively as a way for scorned exes to post nude pictures of their previous partners.
Victims of revenge porn can find their photos and personal information shared across multiple sites. Once the information is posted on a single webpage, others often pick it up and repost it across different networks. This takes an extreme psychological toll on the victim. Some women have gone so far as to change their names after their workplace and business engagements were posted online alongside the nude photos.
A few compromising selfies can draw victims into a dangerous downward spiral. Once the photos reach these revenge porn sites, the women often find complete strangers approaching them and making comments on their photos. Some have had the pictures emailed to coworkers. Sadly, there are few legal recourses available for these victims, once they willingly give the photos to the recipient.
If you’ve posted selfies online, regardless of their content, you may want to stop and consider the possible ramifications of this one simple act. If you’re active on any type of social networking site, it’s important that you stay alert and aware of the potential dangers of social engineering.
Whether they’re stored safely away on a cloud or intentionally shared with your contacts via a site like Facebook, any selfie that’s on your phone or computer opens you up to potential hacking. Think carefully before you click, so you don’t fall victim to a selfie scam that could ruin your reputation.