Smartphone Pictures Pose Privacy Risks

Smartphone Pictures Pose Privacy Risks

At first blush, it seems obvious that looking at a picture could reveal your location. For instance, a picture of you standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge sensibly leads to the conclusion you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area when the photo was taken. But now that smartphones are quickly replacing traditional digital cameras, and even traditional cameras now have Wi-Fi built in, many more pictures are finding their way onto the web, in social media places like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. In a span of 10 days, popular photo social network Instagram added 10 million new users as a result of the release of its Android app and its acquisition by Facebook. And the location data hidden in these quick and candid pictures — even when your location isn’t as obvious as “standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge” — is becoming another easy way for people with malicious intent, to figure out where you are spending your time.

All digital photographic devices (e.g., digital cameras, smartphones, scanners) typically use a standard known as Exchangeable image file format (EXIF) that specifies how additional informational data may be stored with images as they are created. When you snap a picture with your digital camera, you may also (depending upon the type of camera and its settings) be capturing information about the date and time you took the photo, the camera type and the settings you used to take the picture, a description of the photograph, and copyright information. All of this information is stored as embedded metadata in the same file that holds your photo. So you can almost compare it to a document you work on where all of your edits and changes get saved in the form of recorded history available to anyone who has access to the file.

One of the types of data that may be stored with images created by devices that use the EXIF format is location or GPS information. Many mobile phones (and some digital cameras) now have built-in GPS receivers that can record precise information about where a picture was taken and save it in the photograph’s EXIF header (commonly known as geotagging). When such photographs are shared with others (by posting them on the Internet or emailing them, for example), it is possible to use programs, browser plugins, or online web services to examine the metadata in those images to find out specific detailed information such as where the pictures were taken, and use tools that map the stored GPS information to specific locations (such as a particular house or school). Knowing where and when you or any of your family members take photos can pose potential privacy and security issues, especially if you have any concerns about people knowing your whereabouts since many users may be completely unaware that their cameras or cell phones are set up to store all of this extra GPS data. For iPhones and many Android phones that have this option enabled, you will have to turn that option off manually.

How can people ensure their photos are not saving other sensitive data within their pictures? So if you value your privacy when posting photos online, you should take steps to ensure the EXIF metadata in your pictures isn’t an easy way for anyone on the Internet to figure out your location. If you’re using a smartphone to take pictures, you can disable this GPS geotagging feature. On an iPhone go to Settings, tap on Privacy, select Location Services, tap on Camera, and then tap on Never. On an Android phone, swipe from left to right immediately after you open the Camera app. Once you swipe, the settings icon on the bottom right corner will greet you. Tap on it. The settings menu will open and you’ll see that you can turn location on or off just by tapping the button next to Save location.

What’s the bottom line here? Many of the popular social networking sites will now automatically remove this GPS data for you but if you’re emailing, texting, or uploading your pictures to a website like Flickr or Twitpic this GPS location information remains unless you remove it yourself. On a Windows computer you can use Windows Explorer to view the Properties of an image and remove it there. On a Mac you can use the Preview program to remove this data and on an iphone you can download a free app called Metapho by Ziniworks or on Android you can use a free app called Exif Eraser. And so if you might be concerned about others knowing your location based on the photos you post or send, then you might want to think twice after you snap that selfie and post it online.




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