The contractor, the custody battle, and the court drama

What an online detective challenge can teach us about privacy in the age of Yelp and customer reviews

The following challenge was inspired by a case that involved a very unpleasant custody battle. You will see why in a minute!

First of all, though, let us all please admire my cat Ruby and how dignified she looks when she just wants to jump off of me and go steal some bacon:

What a sweetie!

A lot of people, of course, pointed out that the sweetie’s tag has been blurred out (if you’re just joining me — please remember this simple rule of thumb: name tags can be zoomed in on. If you have a telephone number there, or any other information, it’s best to blur them).

Thanks, Pablo, and everyone else who pointed this out!

There were many other responses that were extremely helpful and revealing. Remember: A big part of our journey to be safer and more in control of our digital footprint involves seeing what other people see in our pictures. While I am just a willing guinea pig, you can and should apply these principles to your own photos. “What can someone who doesn’t know me find out about me from this picture?” is always a good question to know.

By checking out my public Instagram, meanwhile, Jackie was able to correctly guess that this picture was taken at home:

(With enough sleuthing, a few of you may have even been able to guess which man I was furious at when I posted the above photo on the Instagram — although I wouldn’t want you to!)

And although my cat, as any cat, is technically the center of the universe, zooming in on the other elements of the photo proved to be much more informative.

Igor was among the several people to correctly identify the power plug as being from IKEA:

Why is this important? Well, if I’ve pointed out before, you know where I shop now! What if I shop online? And re-use passwords, including those potentially revealed in a data breach? Oops!

A lot of people noticed the wire, and some, Elliot included, figured out that it was attached to a security camera (no, I am not a fan of how it was done):

The shoddy work involved was something that many people noticed, and this is an important part of the puzzle:

Darryl, meanwhile, was not a fan of the spider web:

Why is the shoddy work important? Well, simply put, the window is so poorly installed that we’ve been trying to keep it closed. That’s when our friend the spider moved in. He catches the mosquitoes (the cat takes care of the flies) that can make it in when a door is ajar, hence we consider him a valuable tenant.

The cat, however, needs entertainment, which is why I’ve begun to open the window more often for her, hence the web is very asymmetrical now. The cat and the spider are sharing the space as best as they can — and as for me, I use this well lit area to do my work, for the most part. Everything is shoddy, but it does cheer me up.

What’s the security/privacy issue here? Well, consider the fact that one of my clients recently went through a fairly nasty custody battle, during which his ex-wife’s new husband was acting especially unreasonable. My client had a contractor who did work on his patio and his garage. The work was subpar — even worse than what you see in my picture. He and the contractor ended up having a pretty angry dispute about it, and it spilled over onto Yelp and other public places online.

Guess what the ex-wife’s new husband did? He pulled the pictures of the shoddy work, including water damage around a socket, and had their lawyer argue that an otherwise perfectly nice house was “unfit” for the children.

The judge saw right through it. But imagine the stress this caused my client. Imagine the extra hours his lawyer had to put in. Consider how seemingly innocent information published online — my client had done nothing wrong! He had every right to complain! — was twisted and used against him in court.

It sucks to admit this, but a picture is never just a picture in our world. Someone can always come along and use it for an unpleasant purpose. It helps to remember this, always — and it especially helps when you are in the middle of a legal dispute with someone. If you’re not going to lock down your accounts at a time like that, at least try to filter what you’re going to post publicly, or else be aware of the potential consequences. As I always tell my clients, it helps to assume that people are going to be jerks.

At a previous place of work, my cat photos were derided (again, people are jerks). Looking back on it, I realize just how wrong my former colleagues were. Cat photos are a goldmine and contain layers of information that aren’t immediately obvious to the casual observer! Don’t believe me? Sit down and take a look at your own pet photos over the years. You may be surprised by all of the details you previously didn’t notice.

Please consider a paid subscription! Just $5 a month helps keep my cat Ruby fat and happy! If you hate subscriptions, Venmo is Natalia-Antonova-1, CashApp is $NataliaAntonova, and PayPal is nvantonova[at]gmail[dot]com — you can also write me at this address if you need a consultation.