Why geotagging is a growing threat to online privacy

The Growing Threat of Geotagging


Everyone does it. You’re at a family gathering, in a restaurant with friends or on a nature hike and think, “I want a photo of this.” You use your high-end smartphone with its ultra-megapixel camera to snap a photo, and then upload it via your lightning-fast 4G network to a social networking or photo-sharing site like Facebook or Flickr. Sharing events as they happen — it’s modern business (and pleasure) as usual.

By now you probably understand the drawbacks of sharing too much information on the Web; items like embarrassing status updates and risqué party photos can put a real damper on your online reputation. What you might not know, however, is that the photos you upload might contain embedded data (called metadata) about your location — including the precise longitude and latitude of your phone when it took the photo.

Called “geotagging,” this relatively recent phenomenon takes advantage of GPS technology in certain phones and some cameras to add hidden map coordinates to digital photographs, videos and other media. Sound cool? Maybe even a little unsettling? It’s actually a combination of both.This article will describe the technology behind geotagging, how its a growing threat to online privacy and how you can remove location-identifying data before you upload files.


A brief history and overview of geotagging

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Geotagging has experienced a recent surge in popularity — largely unknown to the “geotagged,” of course. Geotags are typically found in exchangeable image file format (Exif) records, which have been a seamless part of digital image identification since the late 1990s. Created by the Japan Electronic Industries Development Association, Exif records include various data related to camera settings, such as date and time, photo descriptions and thumbnails. Though not originally part of Exif standards, geotags have since become a regular feature in Exif metadata, owing chiefly to the increasing prevalence of GPS-capable camera phones.


Are your photos geotagged?

In August 2010 Cybercasing the Joint: On the Privacy Implications of Geo-tagging became one of the first scholarly papers to examine both the hypothetical and actual hazards of geotagging. Among other findings, the authors discovered that a significant number of photos posted to certain websites (specifically Flickr, Craigslist, Twitter and YouTube) contained GPS coordinates, further identifiable by brand of phone or camera.

Of the smartphone brands found to geotag images, the latest models from: 

iPhone      Motorola 

Nexus       BlackBerry

LG            T-Mobile


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came up frequently, with only one standalone camera appearing on the list (GPS receivers are uncommon in all but the most advanced digital cameras). Because the paper’s data encompassed only a small sample of images pulled from Craigslist, one can safely assume that other smartphones also use Exif metadata to capture geotags.

As indicated by the paper’s title, the authors were mainly concerned with the phenomenon of “cybercasing,” which is the use of geotags for crimes like stalking and burglary. Though few instances of cybercasing have ever been reported, the paper proved how easy it is to take a geotagged photo off of Craigslist, retrieve the coordinates and plug them into Google Maps — revealing exactly where the photo was taken (in this case, a residence).  This makes geotagging a growing threat to online privacy.


How can you (or someone else) see geotags in photos?

Fortunately, not everyone knows how to obtain Exif data, as it generally requires a third-party program or browser plug-in to uncover. Such programs include the Exif Viewer and Opanda’s IExif and PowerExif applications, which can easily display various photo metadata (and GPS coordinates). Exif programs have resulted in the creation of several “white hat” websites seeking to raise awareness about the dangers of geotagging. Check out I Can Stalk U and Please Rob Me for more information.


How can you keep geotags out of your photos?

Though different for each camera or phone, the process to restrict geotagging is relatively painless. I Can Stalk U, along with a few other websites, shows you how to disable geotagging on the iPhone, Palm, Google Android and BlackBerry operating systems. To delete geotags from existing photos, you can download a metadata removal tool (some free, some not) and manipulate the geotags directly.  Do so, and mitigate this growing threat to online privacy.

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