The similarities between Shelby Crandall's and Roxy Nicole's Facebook profiles were remarkable. The two bubbly 20-somethings with dark blonde hair had photo albums brimming with snapshots taken in scenic Boulder, Colo., they hung out with the same crew of friends, and even had identical profile pictures - both were posed beside the same woman: Ms. Crandall's mother.
The resemblance was beyond uncanny. That's because all the photos in Ms. Nicole's profile had been lifted from Ms. Crandall's.
Ms. Crandall found out about her doppelganger from her husband's friend, who'd been friended by Ms. Nicole on Facebook. Ms. Crandall was speechless when she saw the profile herself - Ms. Nicole had hundreds of friends and actively communicated with them on her wall. Ms. Crandall complained to Facebook and the account was deleted.
In the early years of personal websites and blogs, privacy and child safety advocates warned against posting personal photos online, lest they end up in the hands of would-be abductors.
But as people have swarmed to social networks and photo-sharing sites, fully embracing the share-everything culture, that hesitancy has all but disappeared. Few contemplate their Disney World vacation photos will be viewed by many of their online friends, let alone people they don't know.
As Ms. Crandall and others have learned, protecting against identity theft goes beyond guarding one's credit card number. By defaulting to public sharing online, users leave their photos open to being repurposed by strangers.
After the "Roxy Nicole" affair, Ms. Crandall ramped up her privacy settings. Now only her friends can view her Facebook albums.
"It's just the whole world is on the Internet. You don't really have power over your identity any more," Ms. Crandall says.
In March, New Yorker Katie Rich blogged about how she'd discovered a stranger had done something similar: mined photos of her family (including her two young daughters) from her blog and posted them on Facebook and Flickr accounts under the name Makena Becker.
In the frustrated post directed at this user, she wrote: "This is just too weird and violating and there is no possible explanation I can think of where someone would do this 'innocently.' "
She's taken a break from blogging since then.
Last summer, mommy blogger Danielle Smith was shocked to receive an e-mail from a college friend who lived in the Czech Republic, alerting her to a billboard in Prague on which a photo of her family had been plastered. She'd uploaded the photo to her blog, a few Ning Networking sites and Facebook, and never gave it a second thought.
"I'll admit, there is an element of flattery [I think]to the whole thing. But still, there is something creepy about knowing our family picture was stolen from one of my sites," Ms. Smith wrote on her blog.
In 2007, many Flickr users discovered images of their kids they'd posted on their photostreams had been downloaded from the site and used to create hundreds of fake profiles on the social network Orkut. This episode sent a temporary chill over the Flickr community as parents adjusted their privacy settings on the site so only friends and family could view their photos. Most, however, have maintained public streams.
Vancouver-area mom Amber Strocel regularly posts photos of her five-year-old and 20-month-old on Flickr and her blog without much hesitation.
"My opinion on blogging and the Internet is that I don't put anything on there that I'm uncomfortable being seen," she says.
But it seems even the most innocuous of photos can titillate.
Ms. Strocel, a breastfeeding advocate, posted a tame picture of herself nursing her son Jacob on Flickr and tagged it "breastfeeding." She sports a modest, crew-neck top in the photo; not a shred of skin is showing.
Among the 2,500 photos she's uploaded to the site, that photo remains far and away the most viewed, she says. Flickr allows users to tag any photos they find as "favourites," and Ms. Strocel noticed a few other moms had favourited that photo. Much to her discomfort, so had some strangers who also had albums full of celebrity nip-slips.
She blocked the users, but has left the photo on the site. She's guided by three rules when it comes to her posts: no nude photos, no photos of other people's kids, and no photos or captions that reveal information about specific locations. She says she's never bought into the idea of sexual predators targeting children after finding photos of them online.
Toronto Police Detective Paul Krawczyk, who works in the child exploitation section of the sex crimes unit, agrees that that specific threat is minimal, but even the tamest photos of kids can stimulate strangers.
"We see these images on the hard drives of people [we arrest] kids playing soccer, kids at the park, digital photos from school," says Det. Krawczyk. "On a daily basis, I see people who are into child pornography posting these types of images on websites and they've taken them from [other]websites."
"As long as you're comfortable going to downtown Toronto and … leaving 1,000 copies of the picture there, that's cool," Det. Krawczyk says.
Vancouverite Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University, has no reservations posting about herself and her husband online, but is cautious when it comes to her kids. The avid blogger and Tweeter only refers to her three-year-old and six-year-old by code name. She puts photos of her kids on a personal blog, but it's password-protected. And only a circle of about 20 friends and relatives can see Facebook pictures of her little ones.
"What benefit do you get from putting your kids' pictures online when you potentially expose them?" she says. "If there's one thing I know about the Internet, it's that it's a place for anyone with a niche interest to explore that interest."