The personal details, including home addresses and dates of birth of thousands of Instagram users have been unwittingly shared on publicly searchable hashtags.
Anyone who has used Instagram knows the social photo-sharing service is ripe for over-sharing, with many users becoming slightly too comfortable photo-blogging their every meal, or posting one too many selfies. But has a complacency with over-sharing left many users exposed to online fraud or even identity theft? And should Instagram do anything about it?
A quick Instagram search for the hashtag #license or #passport reveals just how easy it can be to uncover a full set of personal details, often including a user’s full name, address, date of birth, signature and license or passport number.
In a sample of 463 recent photos posted to the public hashtag #passport, The Data Pack found 21 photos (4.5%) that contained a complete and readable image of the personal details page of a users passport, where the poster had made no attempt to obscure any personal information. A further 24 photos (5.2%) contained photos that included only some, but not all personal details.
Users posting to the hashtag #license appeared to be much more generous with giving away their identity. A sample of 472 recent photos posted to the hashtag revealed the full personal details of 38 users (8%) and the partial details of another 47 users (10%). More than 18% of posts contained at least some personal details.
Of course, sharing private personal information via social media is nothing new. The Twitter account NeedADebit card has been re-tweeting users careless enough to post photos of their full credit card details for over a year.
In April 2012 Instagram announced new guidelines designed to protect users from content that promotes self-harm, which included blocking users from searching hashtags including #thinspiration and #proanorexia. Instagram also blocks users from searching hashtags, like #porn, that potentially return lewd or offensive content.
The revealing hashtags can be accessed via the ‘Discover’ tab in the Instagram app, or using a third-party search tool like Statigr.am or Search Instagram. It would also be possible to save all photos tagged with #passport or #license using the Instagram API, or a tool like If This Then That.
Instagram’s censorship policy is clearly designed to protect users, so should the service be censoring searches for hashtags like #license and #passport? Or should Instagram be censoring search results at all?