Monday, February 7, 2011

Boomers: Your Photos May Disclose More Data than You Think

Recently, an ABC news video has been making the Internet rounds, exposing the fact that newer cameras and phones equipped with GPS chips are embedding location information into photos. This makes it easy for stalkers to find the addresses of the people who posted the photos. A lot of people are worried about this; I received the clip from three people in two days.

The iPhone, for example, automatically embeds the user's latitude and longitude in the "metadata" attached to each photo. If you don't want to be found for some reason, this could be dangerous. I can think of a few obvious examples: a battered woman who has left her spouse; a celebrity who wants to preserve some moments away from the paparazzi; a public official who doesn't want his "niece" found; the CEO of a financial organization that has lost its depositors' money who doesn't want journalists to find his home.

This ABC online story tells the tale of two researchers at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley, California who were able to find the private home addresses of a Playboy Playmate and some TV hosts. It was relatively easy to do.

It's always been relatively easy for a motivated individual to find your home address, even before these days of online look-up systems. You could just look in the White Pages. If the person was from out of your local area, you went over to the library and looked through the shelves of White Pages books stored there. Obviously, the White Pages had its limitations. In the past, if you didn't know where someone lived, you might have to go through a hundred telephone books to find them. In other words, you really needed to be motivated. And most people who didn't want to be found paid the telephone company for an unpublished listing.

However, it's now much easier, not to mention quicker, for unscrupulous people to find out where you live.  The New York Times notes that:
By downloading free browser plug-ins like the Exif Viewer for Firefox ( or Opanda IExif for Internet Explorer (, anyone can pinpoint the location where the photo was taken and create a Google map.
One article said that people who list items for sale on Craigslist could be setting themselves up for robbery, just by posting a picture of the item for sale on the website. Last year, I posted a photo, taken at my home, of an old TV I wanted to sell on Craigslist. I didn't give out my address; people contacted me through Craigslist's email address, and I only contacted people who were interested and whose identity I could verify.

The TV was purchased by someone who had a business in my local area, and I was able to confirm his identity online and match the phone number he gave me in the email with his place of business. But what if the picture of the TV had been taken by a phone that was GPS enabled and had included location metadata? Then any unscrupulous person could have known where I lived and what merchandise I had. Further, if I had shown the TV in a living area of my home, they would have been able to find out much more about me. This is very unsettling. So if you ever post pictures online --of your cute grandkids, your dog, the tons of snow in front of your house--you should think about the information you are sharing.

There are many good reasons to use GPS metadata in photos. It's very convenient, for example, to post pictures to services like Flikr which then "know" where the picture was taken and label it with the location. Pictures from your trip to Japan will have exact locations attached, which for someone who forgets to record that kind of info, is very helpful when organizing albums. If you post pictures from home, you are not at risk of disclosing your location if you choose to make your photos private (an option most photo sharing sites allow) and only share them with people you know. However, if you take a lot of pictures at home and make your albums public, then you should think about the risks associated with letting everyone who has access to the site know your location.

Prompted by one of the articles I read on this subject, I visited a website called I Can Stalk You, which bills itself as "raising awareness about inadvertent information sharing." This site has hints on how to turn off GPS tracking for photos on the iPhone. Here is what I Can Stalk You has to say about turning off the GPS location information on the iPhone 4:

To see your settings, go to Settings, General, then Location Services. From there you can set which applications can access your GPS coordinates or disable it entirely.
For the iPhone 3 series of phones, users have to jump through some hoops. iPhone series 3 users can turn off ALL location based services by going to Settings, General then set Location Services to Off.  While this is simple, I don't recommend doing this. You will never be able to use Google Earth, for example, or driving direction features that use your present location.

So if you want to turn off location data for the camera on the iPhone 3 series, this is what you'll need to do: Go to Settings, General, then Reset.  The rest of the instructions are borrowed from this page on  the website I Can Stalk You, which I strongly suggest you visit.
Be careful here! We want to select Reset Location Warnings, and then Reset Warnings. This restores all of our Location based warnings for each application to the default, which in most cases is "Ask on first use".

From here, once we enter into the default Camera app on the iPhone, we can select Don't Allow. This will prevent the Camera app from geo-tagging our photos.

Not everyone has an iPhone, and I Can Stalk You has some directions for Blackberry users and some others. Since every manufacturer has different instructions, it may take some digging for you to figure out how to disable your information on your newer camera or on your smartphone, if you choose to do so.

In this day and age it's not only technology that reveals your location, but sometimes your friends want to tag the location that a picture was taken on Facebook. ABC News provides the following information on how to protect your Facebook photos from friends who might want to disclose your location to others.
  •  Go to your Facebook account.
  •  Click "Account" in the top right corner.
  •  Click "Privacy Settings.".
  •  In the "Sharing on Facebook" section, click "Customize settings."
  •  Scroll down to "Things others share" and make the option next to "Friends can check me into Places" read "Disabled."
So fellow Boomers, enjoy taking and posting pictures. I know you do it. I've seen those pictures of your grandkids! Tell your children about this too, and make them a little bit more aware of what data is hidden in those pictures they take and share.

1 comment:

Esther Surden said...

I've updated the post to contain clearer images. Once again, thanks to I Can Stalk You for providing screen shots and directions reprinted here.