Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Why I Uploaded A Fictional Criminal To A Client's Website

I'm a web developer and this is the story of how I accidentally uploaded a criminal to the homepage of a client website without even knowing!

Don't worry it wasn't like I uploaded a photo of Charles Manson or Harold Shipman on an innocent corporate website!

So let me start at the beginning...

The brief

The client wanted a header image for their website, and wanted it full of happy smiling faces - which always gives a website a welcoming, positive feel. The client wasn't able to provide any staff photos unfortunately, so I searched for some business people on the iStockphoto library.

If you spend a long time searching iStock (like I do), you'll notice the same faces cropping up time and again. Sometimes just in different pose or setting, or dressed differently. I guess this is normal, if you're a professional model you're going to have a lot of photos taken.

So I found a photo of a jolly fat man with a white beard. I'd actually seen the same man before and even used a different photograph of him in a presentation I'd once created for a construction company. So I recognised him. The photo I found had him in a casual blue shirt smiling at the camera, perfect for what I needed!

So I used the photo on the website's homepage, and showed the client. They were happy and the website went live.

I see the photo again

About a year later, I'm watching one of my favourite TV shows, Dexter. It's about a guy who works for the Miami Homicide. In this episode, Dexter is searching through the Miami police database of criminals, trying to match them with some evidence.

As he scrolls through all the entries of criminals, who did I see as one of the faces? It was the jolly white-bearded man I used on the website! It wasn't just the same guy in a different photo; it was the exact same photo of him smiling at the camera in his blue shirt. In the TV world of Dexter, jolly bearded man is a criminal, or at least has a criminal record with the police.

Obviously the TV crew had searched for royalty free imagery the same as me, and bought the exact same image. But the point I'm trying to make here is that it's very easy for the same images to be used by different people for VERY different purposes! I've seen this plenty of other times too. There's one guy for instance (he must be a hard working model!) whose grinning face I've seen used on posters in shops, on websites, on billboards, and leaflets for a wide range of things.

Damaging to your company?

The jolly bearded man in Dexter was only shown for a fraction of a second.But what if it had been more obvious? What if they had shown a full screen close-up of the guy and made it obvious he was the worst kind of murderer imaginable? Imagine viewers of that episode then jumping on the internet and seeing the same guy on your company website? Weird.

So pick your stock photography carefully! It's always better to use photographs of your own, so there's no chance anyone else will have used them before. If you do need to rely on stock photography for images of people, my advice would be to avoid any that look very familiar!

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