I Can Stalk U: Geotagging Gone WildBy
Parents have a new reason to be concerned about the photos their children are posting online. And this one has nothing to do with a lack of clothes or poor judgment. In a terrifying twist of technology, it seems a great many people are unknowingly giving away their address, every time they post a new photo to the internet or send a picture message on their cell phone.
The information comes in the form of GPS coordinates, and is automatically coded into the photo as a cluster of meta data. This means that it is invisible to the naked eye. Most users don’t even know it’s there. But when interpreted by a computer, the location is accurate to about one meter, meaning that it can easily reveal a person’s address, right down to the house number. In fact, once entered into Google maps, a free internet service, a perfect stranger can not only see an areal view of the location, but quickly obtain directions to the doorstep. So in less than a minute, someone can download a picture that you’ve sent via cell phone, or posted to a social networking site, pull out the GPS coordinates and have your address. Once they have your address, its just another quick internet search to obtain the name listed on the home’s deed. Suddenly, the term “revealing photograph”, takes on a whole new meaning.
How widespread is this practice? Take a deep breath. There are now plug-ins available for all major internet browsers, that automatically pull this GPS information out of the photos displayed on your screen. Just click on the photo you’re interested in, and you’ve got the info. A great many free sites, such as CameraSummary.com now offer “image data extraction” as a service inviting users to visit their url. A website called ICANSTALKU.COM is one online source that continually displays a running feed of people’s internet photo’s, along with the address at which they were taken. The company that launched the site says that it did so as a public service announcement, but if you spend just a few seconds staring at the information being displayed in front of you, your stomach will start to turn. Several well known celebrities have inadvertently revealed their own home or vacation location, by unknowingly posting their photos via twitter or other online sources.
But the Paparazzi aren’t the only ones salivating over this information. And your profile picture isn’t the only one to be concerned about. If you’ve recently posted a photo to an online classified add, such as Craigslist.com, or some other internet sales site, you may be providing much more information than you intended. By uploading a picture of a bicycle you’re selling, you could also be uploading the real location of where the bicycle is being stored. Post a picture from work, or maybe from your kid’s soccer game, and you’ve just given the location information to any creep that wants it.
GPS data isn’t the only worry. Digital photography has always allowed us to include hidden information with the pictures that we take. Most of it is included automatically, without your knowledge or approval. The image file name is the simplest example of information that is invisible to the eye. Recently, cameras and photo libraries began including more hidden data, such as date, exposure, color balance and other technical details of the shot. The serial number of your camera is there too, along with other things. If you’ve edited the photo with a particular software, that’s likely included as well. What’s more, many people are unaware that this metadata includes a thumbnail of their original image. This means that if you’ve cropped or edited someone out of your uploaded image, they are still visible in the thumbnail, which is available in the hidden data.
Your camera has to have GPS capability in order include that information with the shot, but this is not considered a groundbreaking feature, and most users are unaware that their device even has it. And while your smartphone likely has a setting which allows you to disable the GPS imprint, it is not easy to find. Moreover, some phones, such as the iphone 3G, only allow you to turn the GPS off completely. This means that if you turn it off for the camera, you also disable other convenient features that rely upon GPS. The best way to determine if your device includes GPS information, is to review the owner’s manual. The same site mentioned earlier, ICANSTALKU.COM also publishes a list of popular devices, along with instructions on how to disable the GPS feature.
There are ways of removing the metadata from your photos. Metadata is referred to as Exif, IPTC or XMP, and there are various programs / websites that strip it from your files. Just do an internet search for “meta stripper” or include any of the abbreviations above, along with the term “remove”. You can also use photo editing software to create a blank photo file of the same size as your original shot. Then copy the original shot and paste it into the blank photo file. Make sure you save it under a new name. It’s a good idea to preserve your original shot, though, because the metadata actually is very useful under most circumstances.
It’s also important to mention, that not all internet sites preserve the metadata of the photos that are uploaded. If you’re not going to strip the data from your images, its a very good idea to research the site you intend to share your photos on.
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