updated 6/6/2012 4:45:52 PM ET 2012-06-06T20:45:52

You have all of your social-media privacy settings in order. You've got a strong password protecting your account. You don't play online games, and you're careful about which links you click on.

Then you find a comment from the friend of a friend on your Facebook page. Another friend tweets a picture of you to her 1,000 Twitter followers. Your dance moves show up on YouTube.

Pictures of your best friend’s drunken birthday bash turn up on a Google search of your name, and you start to wonder if that's why you never got called back for that job interview.

After a while, you start to wonder whether there's any way to keep your friends from sharing your private life with the whole world.

[ 11 Facebook Privacy Steps to Take Now ]

The harsh truth

As much as you love them, friends and family can do a lot of harm by posting an innocent-looking picture or video of you, or even just your name. Relationships, careers, job opportunities and reputations, of both brands and individuals, can be ruined by content posted by third parties.

"Friends can damage your reputation through the deliberate action of posting information about you that you would prefer no one see," said Joy Butler, attorney and author of "The Cyber Citizen’s Guide Through the Legal Jungle: Internet Law for Your Professional Online Presence" (Sashay Communications, 2010). "Friends can also accidentally release sensitive information about you without your or their knowledge."

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to stop anyone from posting something about you.

"The Internet is by design and will be, hopefully forever, about free content and speech," pointed out Chris Cicero of Digital Whiteout, a reputation-management firm in New York.

Steps to take

However, there are steps you can take to keep your friends and family from doing too much damage to your reputation, while letting you determine how much you want to protect your privacy.

The first thing to do is to find out what, if anything, is being posted about you. Check the settings of your social-media accounts and use the maximum privacy management they offer, and suggest to your friends that do the same.

On Facebook, set the privacy features so that you have to approve of any photo that is tagged with your name. It won't prevent the photo from going up, but it will allow you to remove your name.  

Cicero also suggested setting up a Google Alert for your own name, as well as for each common variant of it. For example, William Periwinkle would also want to set up alerts for "Bill Periwinkle" and "Will Periwinkle."

"You will be notified via email when new content shows up online matching the terms you set the alert up with," Cicero said.

(A side note: From the author's personal experience, Google Alerts doesn't provide an update on every occurrence of your name appearing on the Web. It only scans heavily trafficked sites. If you have a common name, your alert will also need keywords, such as your hometown, to narrow down the search.)

You can also start protecting your online reputation by modifying your offline behavior.

"If someone has a camera at an event you'd prefer to keep private, ask how they plan to distribute the photos or video," Butler said. "Clearly expressing your objections to your image being posted online eliminates any argument that you gave your implied consent for the material to be posted."

Legal options

Once you find that someone has posted your image without your permission, there isn't much you can do about it besides politely asking him or her to take it down.

"What you can do about someone posting pictures or videos of you is fact-specific and changes [from] state to state," explained Gant Redmon, general counsel and vice president of business development at Cambridge, Mass.-based data-loss management firm Co3 Systems.

"You start by asking if the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy," Redmon said. "A person generally has a reasonable expectation of privacy alone in their home, but not at a party with a bunch of other people. So the law prevents someone taking pictures of you through your windows, but not when someone takes out their camera phone at a Memorial Day picnic for fun."

If you're the person who took the picture or shot the video, you are in most cases the copyright owner. As such, you can send the social-media site or Web host a Digital Millennium Copyright Act take-down notice that will demand removal of the video or picture.

"If you are not the copyright owner, legal claims you might have include defamation and invasion of privacy," Butler said. "If the information posted includes false statements about you and you suffer actual harm as a result, you may have a valid defamation claim that's worthy of a lawsuit.

"While written information about you can easily be defamatory," Butler said, "photos and videos typically represent the 'truth' of what you did, so they will not be defamatory unless they are presented in a misleading manner."

Perhaps the only real way to prevent others from posting about you or putting images of you online is to stay locked up in your home and to spend your days using a fake name and avatar on video games. But who wants to live like that?

Instead, take a few precautions and be proactive on your end. The best precaution may be the most simple — ask your friends and family if they would want you to post similar pictures and comments about them.

If anyone replies, "No, of course not," insist that they also cease and desist when it comes to posting things about you.

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