Geotags are the small amount of metadata contained within a digital photo or video file which records the exact longitude and latitude of the location that the images were taken. Geotags are a useful tool for anyone wanting to identify where their own multiple photos were taken at a later date, such as on a road trip vacation. Geotags are created by a digital camera with a GPS function.
However, Geotags can also pose a privacy and security risk should this data fall into the wrong hands. The combination of an image of a house, hotel or vehicle with the Geotag identifying the location means that a stranger now knows quite a lot about you. For instance, where you live or your friends live, which café you frequent or where you like to park your new sports car.
This data exposure mix gets worse when the image is posted on a social networking site giving further background information such as about to take a vacation, bought a new car or parents are away for the week. This can enable criminals to target a house they know to be vacant or locate a specific car to be stolen.
Geotagging is available on most smart phones but is often a hidden feature which many users are unaware of how to disable it. For many phones, disabling the Geotag function involves going through layers of menus until reaching the “location” setting, then choosing “disable” or “don’t allow.” This may have the effect of turning off all GPS capabilities on the phone, including mapping, so there is no simple solution.
Phone manufacturers should look to making the function disabled with more explanation as to the benefits and risks of the use of Geotags to make users more aware.
Police investigators are aware of this Geotag function and have used this method to locate crime scenes or else confirm that certain individuals were present at a specific location.
Because the Geotag location data is not visible to the casual viewer, the phone users will not realise it is there and could be compromising their privacy.
Some protection of privacy is provided inadvertently by sites including FaceBook as the formatting of the uploaded images often removes the Geotag metadata. Some security experts have asked other websites to consider including a similar process unless the user wishes to retain the Geotag data with the image, but the response has been haphazard.
There is a website http://icanstalku.com/which seeks to educate users about the pitfalls of Geotags and even monitors the posting of images which inadvertently have Geotag metadata and alerts the user as to the threat.
The problem of exposing sensitive information via Geotags will continue to increase as users upload photos to locations like Blogs, school sites and message boards without being aware of the Geotag information. Take some time to examine how the Geotag data is recorded on your images and how you can mask it before posting or emailing images to others.
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