Viterbi tool improves online photo privacy

Viterbi School of Engineering researchers presented their tool April 5 in Chicago that encrypts photos uploaded onto social networking sites like Facebook and Flickr, allowing users to keep their photos private.

Signal and Image Processing Professor Antonio Ortega, Computer Science Professor Ramesh Govindan and Moo-Ryong Ra, a doctorate student in computer science, created P3, which stands for Privacy-Preserving Photo Sharing. The U.S. National Science Foundation funded the research.

P3 is designed to encrypt and remove small amounts of data from photos, making them unrecognizable to cloud-based file sharing sites. Users, however, are able to share the encrypted version of the photo with others online without uploading the file to the website.

This technique also allows users to retain all rights to the photo. Many cloud-based file sharing sites, including Facebook, state in their terms of use that photos uploaded can be used by the website until the account is deleted. However, if the photo has been shared with other active users, the site still has license to use it.

“Nobody doubts the convenience of cloud-based sharing; the question is whether we can trust third parties to protect our photos from unauthorized distribution or use,” Ortega told USC News. “With P3, you decide how your photos can be used without losing the convenience of sharing them through the cloud.”

P3 does not hinder websites’ attempts to use photos uploaded by individuals, but instead scrambles the image the website can access so that it cannot be identified.

Ortega and Govindan will market P3, which has a provisional patent, to the public through a company set to launch this summer.

Erik Nelson, a senior majoring in business administration and Spanish, said the tool has the potential to be helpful, especially for security purposes.

”I think it’s great that there’s an option to keep personal photos truly private,” Nelson said. “You always hear that what goes on the Internet lasts forever, but I feel a lot better now being able to take photos of my friends and not have to worry about who can get access to it. I take a ton of pictures but I don’t want them to just be floating around on the Internet.”

And Sydney Goldman, a junior majoring in communication, said the tool can be helpful in light of constantly confusing and changing site policies.

“I’m glad that they are developing ways for me to be in charge of keeping my photos private rather than trusting Facebook to do so, especially because they continually change privacy policies,” Goldman said.