Home / Entertainment / Karen Hepp: ‘My image was captured by a bodega security camera — then used to sell porn’

Karen Hepp: ‘My image was captured by a bodega security camera — then used to sell porn’

Karen Hepp was just a normal Manhattan mom, running into a bodega for a quick gallon of milk — or maybe it was a cup of coffee or loaf of bread. She doesn’t actually remember what she was buying, or the name of the store, or even the date it happened “around 15 years ago.” That’s how innocuous the stop was.

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But the married mom of three had her life ruined by that bodega visit when the store’s security footage — showing Hepp standing near what her lawyer said is the front counter — ended up all over the Internet.

“My face has been in ads for a dating app and an erectile dysfunction medicine; it also appeared on an overseas porn site,” Hepp, 50, told The Post. “I’m embarrassed and so are my kids. This is a punch to the gut that made me feel sick to my stomach.”

Hepp’s bodega picture ended up on Facebook in an ad for a dating app and on porn sites, including xnxx.com. In another, her face appeared with the tagline: “These mothers f–k for free.”

“I have no idea how [the photo] went from a security camera to ads on the Internet,” said Hepp, who was formerly the co-anchor of “Good Day Wake Up” in NYC and now holds a similar on-air position with the Fox News affiliate in Philadelphia.

Morning-TV co-anchor Hepp took Big Tech to court, targeting Section 230, which protects Web sites from litigation.
Rachel Wisniewski for NY Post

But Samuel Fineman, the Cherry Hill, NJ, attorney who represents Hepp, has an idea. “Karen was cashing out and the security camera was looking down,” the lawyer told The Post. “My theory is that an associate in the store recognized her from TV and isolated her picture. Somehow, it wound up on the Web for nefarious purposes.”

Shockingly, there is very little that Hepp — or anyone else this happens to — can do about it.

Blame it on Congress.

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In 1996, legislators enacted Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. At its most basic, the provision supplies immunity for Web sites if a third-party — such as an advertiser or commenter — uploads content that can be considered libelous, obscene or offensive.

In other words, if someone on Facebook posts libelous comments — or an advertiser appropriates someone’s image without authorization — Facebook is not responsible for it.

“Back when the Internet was an incipient technology, in 1996, the US Congress thought that Internet publishers should be protected from lawsuits [arising from third-party content] so that sites could thrive,” said Fineman. “Facebook was fledgling and there was no Reddit. Now we’re in another universe and that ruling still holds up — even though it makes no sense with the influence and wealth of Internet companies and the sophistication of reverse-search technology for images.”

Hepp’s bodega closeup (left) appeared in ads for online dating (right) and even pornography — but getting the image off the Internet has proven to be a costly battle.

Reverse search is a tool that allows anyone to use an image — instead of words — as a search-engine query and find examples of that image on the Web.

Both President Biden and former President Donald Trump have spoken out against Section 230, especially as it applies to Big Tech.

In January 2020, Biden told The New York Times: “Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms,” Biden said, calling out Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. “It should be revoked because [Facebook] is not merely an Internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false.”

My face has been in ads for a dating app and erectile dysfunction. (It’s) a punch to the gut.

Karen Hepp, on her stolen identity

Citizens can, ostensibly, stop a site from using unauthorized images as they pertain to copyright or intellectual property for three reasons: defamation, invasion of privacy or violation of right of publicity for commercial exploitation.

Hepp and Fineman built their lawsuit around that last one, claiming that the photo was being used for “prurient and illicit purposes” without Hepp’s permission. “The cornerstone of the suit is that her photo is being used for commercial purposes — to sell products or to benefit the sites,” the lawyer said.

It’s not only security-camera feeds that can turn private people into public promoters against their will.

In 2012, the actress Alicyn Packard accused Moet Hennessy of misappropriating her likeness from a dramatic online video that she and her friends made. Packard landed in a Web ad, for Moet-owned Belvedere Vodka, with a smiling actor grabbing her from behind, wrapping an arm around her upper torso as she looks panicked. The ad’s headline read, “Unlike some people — Belvedere always goes down smoothly.” Packard filed a lawsuit. Moet Hennesy took down the ad and Belvedere posted an apology.

More recently, Edward Kelly, a New Jersey man who posed for a joke-selfie fanning hundred dollar bills, found himself allegedly depicted as a pimp in an ad on Pornhub after a friend posted the shot on social media. Fineman, on behalf of Kelly, sued Pornhub. The case is recorded as voluntarily dismissed (sometimes the public outcome for cases that get discreetly settled.)

Fineman believes that unless Section 230 is changed, such incidents will occur with increased frequency.

“It’s getting worse because Web sites are becoming more emboldened each day,” said Fineman. “Section 230 has evolved into a shield that protects Web sites at the cost of individuals whose lives get violated. Often, [the people] don’t even know that their faces are being used.”

It was in 2018 when Hepp’s colleagues at Fox recognized her gracing a Facebook ad for a dating app. “A manager called me and said that several co-workers saw me,” recalled Hepp. “I couldn’t believe it. I had to explain something that I found inexplicable.”

According to the complaint, the same shot even found its way to a Web site called Giphy, which specializes in posting GIFs and animated stickers. On that site, an animated man was shown to be standing behind her and masturbating.

It was all the more damaging due to Hepp’s on-air image. “My role on ‘Good Day Philadelphia’ is to be a person who is part of the audience’s family,” she said.

Hepp’s manager at the Philly station tried to help her. “Obviously, the pictures were appropriated, but they were impossible to stop. [The Fox affiliate’s] legal department couldn’t do it. Nor could the tech people.”

She reached out to the sites directly, requesting that her image be removed, but those efforts were fruitless. The process, she said, “is not intuitive. It’s complicated to file a complaint and to get the pictures taken down. Nobody gets back to you. The conversation is kept online.”

Frustrated, she turned to Fineman. In February 2020 he filed a $10 million lawsuit against Facebook, Reddit (where her picture was shared by users of a fetish group), Imgur (a photo-sharing platform on which her image was categorized under the heading “MILF”) and other sites.

While it is impossible to definitively pin down how Hepp wound up as an online face, Alan Butler, executive director of Electronic Privacy Information Center, believes that her celebrity as a TV newscaster contributed to the situation.

In 2012, actress Alicyn Packard accused Moet Hennessy of misappropriating a video she made with friends as an ad for Belvedere Vodka.
Getty Images

“There are odds that someone who ran the store captured the image, posted it online and wrote something like, ‘Look who was in my store, the lady from ‘Good Day Wake Up,’ ” Butler told The Post. “He could have pushed it out on a user-generated social media site. From there, her picture could have been lifted by an entity that does online advertising. Web sites sell real estate on their sites and that real estate gets filled with click-baity ads from shadowy companies that drive traffic to legitimate businesses. It could have been one of those.”

The Third Circuit Court, which holds sway in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the US Virgin Islands, was unsympathetic to Hepp’s dilemma. It cited Section 230 and ruled in favor of the sites as well as their advertisers. While all defendants named in the suit have taken down Hepp’s photo, it is not necessarily gone forever. As Fineman told The Post of efforts to keep the shot from popping up elsewhere on the Web, “It’s like a game of whack-a-mole.”

Hepp may have been targeted because she is a public figure — but her nightmare could happen to anyone.
Rachel Wisniewski for NY Post

But Fineman and Hepp are not giving up. And they now have the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA on their side as the case moves into a second phase via the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The unions that represent performers are rallying behind Hepp. An amicus brief filed by SAG’s lawyers states, “The very cornerstone of [performers’] careers is their ability to exploit their rights . . . [to promote] often very valuable assets.”

Hepp, 50, explained: “All things are monetizable these days, and this affects everybody in the entertainment industry. I built my brand on who I am. This can hurt me.”

Despite the potential financial repercussions and ongoing personal heartache of this nightmare, Hepp has found comfort from concerned pals as well as strangers.

“It’s become a public issue and everyone knew I couldn’t stop it,” she said. “Even viewers think it’s wrong. In fact, I’ve received support from all over. After hearing about the case, three people wrote me the same thing: ‘You go, girl!’ ”

And it’s not just limited to those in the entertainment business. The Hollywood Reporter maintains that thousands of mostly anonymous individuals launch suits against social-media sites each year to try and control unauthorized images and potentially libelous language used against them.

As Hepp said: “This whole thing is dumbfounding.”