Less than a month ago, Shagun Segan – a 37-year-old lifestyle influencer based in Hyderabad, India – and his partner had a baby. Segan kept his son’s face covered in all the photos he uploaded on social media. “It goes back to this old tradition of keeping the mom and baby away from outsiders for 40 days to prevent contagious infections, and also nazar – the evil eye,” Segan told VICE. “I will go back to posting his photos when these 40 days are up.”
Unlike Segan, however, parents are increasingly choosing to be vigilant about sharing images of their children online, and it has little to do with tradition of any kind. Lifestyle influencer Noor Anand Chawla is often asked to include her young son in online marketing campaigns. “But I’m learning to say no,” said the 34-year-old based in New Delhi, India. “If I post anything with him, I ensure he’s never alone in the frame. He always has me or other family members by his side.” Chawla added that to further ensure her son’s safety, she avoids sharing details like his name and where he goes to school when asked on social media.
In 2018, security specialists at British multinational bank Barclays claimed that “identity fraud has never been easier,” thanks to “sharenting” – the practice of parents or other caregivers, including teachers, sharing private information about a young person on the internet. This can include revealing names, addresses, birth dates, as well as specific likes and dislikes. Personal information that will likely still be available online when the person becomes an adult, Barclays warned, could be used to commit online fraud, including loan fraud, opening fake bank accounts, and making credit card transactions.
“Combine this with personal information about the parents and other data sources from data breaches, and you have a recipe for easy identity theft – often even before the child becomes a teenager,” said Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN, a software company, headquartered in the British Virgin Islands. “Plus, if you’re using any smart devices or toys connected to the internet in your home, information is going to be picked up. A variety of smart toys – including teddy bears, dolls, and children’s watches – have shown themselves vulnerable to being hacked.”
Young people are especially vulnerable, as identity theft, or the wrongful acquisition of another’s personal data, can go beyond online fraud. Personal information can fall into the hands of kidnappers, stalkers, and child abusers. “This might not sound risky for a one-off photo, but think of all the photos and videos you share online and it adds up to a detailed map of where your child usually is at specific times,” said Mehak Siddique, a tech journalist with VPNOverview, a website on online privacy and security.
The separation between our private and public lives was soon to become even more blurred with the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic back in March 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO), resulting in lockdowns of varying severity across most of the world. Apart from the practical aspects of needing to spend more time online and in the virtual world, sharing otherwise private moments from our lives also became a way of ensuring human connection. With students cut off not just from attending class, but also from extracurricular activities, attending classes online became the norm. “The biggest problem that I see for any type of fraud or risk facing children, especially during the pandemic or as a result of the pandemic, was the need for parents and children to rely on digital devices for remote learning,” said Kristen Walker, a digital privacy expert and professor of marketing at California State University, Northridge.
Many uploaded photos of their families doing lockdown challenges to keep up with social connections. “When it is impossible to associate with extended family, colleagues, neighbours, and friends physically, most people turn to sharing information online, including [about] their children,” said Benjamin Yankson, assistant professor of cybersecurity with the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY).
But it’s not like we’ve not been told about the dangers in the past. Some parents, despite the temptation to share, have erred on the side of caution.
Children’s book author Shruthi Rao, 43, who lives in Fermont, California, found ways to post about her daughter, now 15, without revealing too much personal information. “I used to be a blogger. If I had to share pictures [of my daughter] to go with my stories, it was always from the back, or just her hands. I had a nickname for her that I used both on the blog, and on social media. People who remember my blog don’t ask my daughter’s name, and instead ask: ‘Is this puttachi?’ which means ‘little one’ in Kannada.”
Sarah Campus, a 33-year-old fitness influencer based in Chiswick, West London, follows similar rules, choosing not to share photos that reveal her children’s faces or any identifying features. “There’s a huge element of privacy that is lost as soon as you expose your child all over the internet. From ultrasound photos and due date announcements posted on social media to the proliferation of smart toys, parents are revealing far more information than they realise. There’s very little information about your child that’s truly private anymore.”
But how can a perpetrator source this information from a simple photo of your kiddo on Instagram? “There’s a ton of data attached to any piece of digital media,” said tech journo Siddique. Every photo posted online – from awkward selfies to your kid’s first day at school – contains metadata. Metadata can include information about where the photo was taken, the make and model of your phone, as well as details about the work you do.
Kathryn Lord, a 35-year-old nanny based in London, has worked with clients from wealthy families. “The privacy of the families I work for is of the utmost importance,” she told VICE over email. “Even if we are on a trip to a museum or a playground, posting our location is not allowed. If a blog or social media post is about the outing, it’s many days if not weeks after [the outing itself].”
In India, the right to privacy is a fundamental right, yet a comprehensive law on data protection does not exist. Uma Subramanium, co-founder and director of the Mumbai-based organisation RATI (Rights. Action. Technology. Information) Foundation for Social Change believes that the risk of information, including images, being misused will remain, but that fear isn’t the solution. “This fear will be passed down from the parents to the children and lead to more self-censorship. Sweeping generalisations on sharenting and children’s privacy won’t work in a diverse country like India.”
As of December 2021, India had 646 million internet users aged two and above, and by 2025, that number is likely to increase to over 900 million. Blaise M. Crowly, a cyber-security designer based in Kochi, India said that the country doesn’t see too many cases of identity theft, because access to the internet is still limited, but warns that even though case numbers are relatively low, there might be a spike in coming years. “Law enforcement needs to catch up with the cyber crimes happening now, because these crimes evolve at a very fast rate.”
Crowly recalled a case of identity theft in which a man impersonated the 12-year-old son of a distant relative. “[He] used the child’s name to loan money from private moneylenders, and then disappeared with the money. It was a hassle for the child’s mother to file a police complaint,” he said. The case was ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
For Dhruv Warrior, a 37-year-old media professional based in Bengaluru, India, working on digital literacy might be the proverbial light at the end of the digital tunnel. “General data protection regulation, digital rights, consent to cookies and how your data will be mined and used, are some of the things we should explain to kids as early as possible.”