You are HERE!… geotagging hazards

Following you’ll find an abbreviated version of an article that appeared in the New York Times concerning Geotagging – a feature inherent in smart phones and certain digital cameras. What is Geotagging, you ask? The U.S. Army explained the feature this way to its troops in a presentation on unit safety and social media, “Geotagging is the process of adding geographical information to photographs, video, websites, and SMS messages. It is the equivalent of adding a 10-digit grid coordinate to everything you post on the internet. Geotags are automatically embedded in pictures taken with smartphones” (U.S.Army, 2010). In other words, if someone knows what they’re looking for and how to look for it, they can determine the exact location from which a message or picture was posted.

Now, perhaps this may be a useful feature for you. If something happens to you, someone with a little knowledge can pinpoint the exact location from which your last text message was sent. Think of the usefulness this might have in certain search and rescue situations. Here in New Mexico, hikers who get lost just outside of metropolitan areas have been able to identify their locations to rescuers by calling 911, but rescuers were still forced to hike the length of popular trails to try to determine where exactly someone got lost, or stuck. But what if those same stranded hikers could send a message and give searchers an exact grid coordinate for their location? It would make things much more straight forward.

Or consider what might happen if something criminal were to happen to you – say, a car jacking. The location from which you sent your last Tweet, your last check-in, or your last mobile upload will be a critical piece of information.

But what if you don’t want people to find you, or to figure out where you live, or work, what time you’re going to be away from your home, or where your kids go to school? For the spooky details, read on.

NOTE: Portions of the text which included instructions for tracking someone’s geotags have been omitted.

Web Photos That Reveal Secrets, Like Where You Live

By Kate Murphy

When Adam Savage, host of the popular science program “MythBusters,” posted a picture on Twitter of his automobile parked in front of his house, he let his fans know much more than that he drove a Toyota Land Cruiser. Embedded in the image was a geotag, a bit of data providing the longitude and latitude of where the photo was taken. Hence, he revealed exactly where he lived. And since the accompanying text was “Now it’s off to work,” potential thieves knew he would not be at home.

Security experts and privacy advocates have recently begun warning about the potential dangers of geotags, which are embedded in photos and videos taken with GPS-equipped smartphones and digital cameras. Because the location data is not visible to the casual viewer, the concern is that many people may not realize it is there; and they could be compromising their privacy, if not their safety, when they post geotagged media online.

Mr. Savage said he knew about geotags. (He should, as host of a show popular with technology followers.) But he said he had neglected to disable the function on his iPhone before taking the picture and uploading it to Twitter.

Mr. Savage has since turned off the geotag feature on his iPhone, and he isn’t worried about the archived photo on Twitter because he has moved to a new residence.

But others may not be so technologically informed or so blasé about their privacy.

“I’d say very few people know about geotag capabilities,” said Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, “and consent is sort of a slippery slope when the only way you can turn off the function on your smartphone is through an invisible menu that no one really knows about.”

Indeed, disabling the geotag function generally involves going through several layers of menus until you find the “location” setting, then selecting “off” or “don’t allow.” But doing this can sometimes turn off all GPS capabilities, including mapping, so it can get complicated.

The Web site  provides step-by-step instructions for disabling the photo geotagging function on iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and Palm devices.

A person’s location is also revealed while using services like Foursquare and Gowalla as well as when posting to Twitter from a GPS-enabled mobile device, but the geographical data is not hidden as it is when posting photos.

Many of the pictures show people’s children playing in or around their homes. Others reveal expensive cars, computers and flat-screen televisions. There are also pictures of people at their friends’ houses or at the Starbucks they visit each morning.

Moreover, since multimedia sites like Twitter and YouTube have user-friendly application programming interfaces, or A.P.I.’s, someone with a little knowledge about writing computer code can create a program to search for geotagged photos in a systematic way. For example, they can search for those accompanied with text like “on vacation” or those taken in a specified neighborhood.

Because of the way photographs are formatted by some sites like Facebook and, geotag information is not always retained when an image is uploaded, which provides some protection, albeit incidental. Other sites like Flickr have recently taken steps to block access to geotag data on images taken with smartphones unless a user explicitly allows it.

But experts say the problem goes far beyond social networking and photo sharing Web sites, regardless of whether they offer user privacy settings.

“There are so many places where people upload photos, like personal blogs and bulletin boards,” said Johannes B. Ullrich, chief technology officer of the SANS Technology Institute, which provides network security training and monitors the Internet for emerging security threats.  “You need to educate yourself and your friends but in the end, you really have no control,” he said.

Well, that’s all my “news” that’s fit to print. As always, thank you for reading.

~ L.  


United States Army. “Geotags and Location-Based Social Networking.” Social Media Roundup. 2010.

Murphy, Kate. “Web Photos that Reveal Secrets, Like Where You Live.” The New York Times. Published in print edition on August 12, 2010, page B6. Published in online edition August 11, 2010. Retrieved from:


Twitter screenshot: © 2010. The New York Times.

Adam Savage photo: © 2010. Discovery Communications, LLC.


2 Responses to “You are HERE!… geotagging hazards”

  1. Seth Says:

    The Web site provides step-by-step instructions for disabling the photo geotagging function on iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and Palm devices.

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