Why I Keep my Instagram Private (Or the Problem with Third Party Use)

My Instagram is kept private not because I care if other Instagrammers can see my photos, but because I worry about what uses third parties might find for them. This privacy decision reveals the importance of consent regarding use of personal information.

Why would I want my photos to be public? I like the idea of contributing to a photo collage on Instagram of an event, a place or a hashtag. Strangers viewing my photos within the app will at least see them within the context I choose to place them. Yet I do not like that if my Instagram account is public, anyone can use my photo for any other purpose as well. My Twitter account is public but because of that I rarely post photos to that site. Photos feel more like my personal property than the nonsense I tweet.

For the first two years of its life Instagram was accessible only through the app. Then, in November 2012, the company placed all Instagram profiles on the web, making public photos visible to anyone, instead of just within the (admittedly fairly wide) circle of Instagram users.

Public Instagram photos are catalogued with the rest of the web, so there is no telling who will use them for what in the future. There are a number of services such as Instasave, Downgram and Instaport to allow users to download their photos and the photos of others en masse. Other third party applications like worldc.am ease the search for photos by location. Once my photos are on the web, I no longer have control over how they’re used.

At the extreme end, recent reports describe users “role-playing” with public baby photos. This means that the user has copied the photo(s) of the baby and then repost them, pretending the baby is their own. While Instagram users could certainly leave unsavory comments within the app, this kind of behavior is only possible with the ownership over the photos that Instagram on the web allows. Meaning, role-players can more easily download photos from the web.

Of course by having any account at all I am still allowing Instagram (and its owner Facebook) access to my photos. Instagram briefly changed their terms of service to allow itself to sell user photos to advertisers without alerting the users, but a barrage of complaints led to a reversal of this position. The site’s terms of service now state that users own the photos they upload.

I wish that I was always able to decide whether to consent to third party use of my information. This decision is rare. So, when given the opportunity, I will limit third party use of my photos and this is why I keep my Instagram private.