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Geotags Compromise Your Security and Privacy

Written by Gail Bjork

geo-location-settingAs a photographer, I often rely on checking the Exif data of a digital photo to review camera settings such as shutter speed, aperture and date and time a photo was taken. However, much to my surprise, I found information embedded in photos taken with my smartphone that I wouldn’t want to share with anyone. It’s called geotagging, and geotagging can compromise your security and privacy!

Many mobile phones, and an increasing number of digital cameras, have built-in GPS receivers. When enabled, these receivers embed information about the precise location where a photo was taken along with other Exif data. This storing of precise geographical information and GPS coordinates in each photo is known as geotagging.

Exact address was embedded in image taken with a smartphone.

Exact address was embedded in image taken with a smartphone.

Sure I heard about geotagging but, like others, didn’t pay much attention to it. I have a GPS receiver in my digital camera but turned it off a long time ago. Plus I rarely, if ever, take photos with my smartphone preferring to use a high quality compact digital camera with lots more features than found on phones.

I inadvertently stumbled upon geotag information when checking the “details” in a few smartphone photos. I was shocked to see the exact address, state and country of the home where we were visiting!.

Geotagging can tell others your whereabouts

The implications of photo geotagging can potentially have negative consequences when you upload images online. For example, if you post a photo of your children or your home, do you really want others to know the precise location and time?

According to the Snopes website, “When such photographs are shared with others (by posting them on the Internet, for example), it is possible that viewers can examine the Exif metadata stored with those images to find out 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). This poses potential privacy and security issues, especially since some users may be completely unaware that their cameras are set up to store location information by default.”

Geotagging turned on by default

Geotagging is often enabled on smartphones and smartphone apps, and some digital cameras that have the feature. I’ve turned geotagging off for most purposes and will only enable it, perhaps, if I take a a trip and won’t be uploading images until a later date. Taking photos at special venues, and uploading them while still there, not only tells others where you are but that you are not home.

There are some things that you should not geotag such as private places: your home, your place of business, or your children’s schools and playgrounds. And by all means, never geotag photos of children.

Shutting off Geotagging

remove-geo-locationYou can shut off geotagging in the settings menu of your camera, smartphone and smartphone apps. In many cases, geotagging and location settings are turned on by default, so make a point to check all your settings.

Some photo sharing and social websites, such as Facebook, automatically remove partial or all stored EXIF data and geotagging to help protect the privacy of users. Other sites offer privacy settings so you can opt-in or opt-out of letting EXIF and Geotag data be revealed to others. Check out those settings!

camera-gps-setting

GPS was on in this camera app. I unchecked to turn it off.

Removing Geotag Information

If you want to remove embedded geotagging information from photos, search online for free EXIF editors and apps. If you edit your photos in programs such as Photoshop, be sure to use the “Save for Web & Devices” (not “Save AS”) menu usually found in the File menu. This will strip an image of the EXIF data. Check your software Help files for more information.

Enjoy taking photos but, when you do, make sure you are not unwittingly compromising your security and privacy.

Related reading:

What is EXIF Data and How Do You Remove it from Your Photos?
How to Avoid the Potential Risks of Geotagging
Geotag Security

About the author

Gail Bjork

Gail Bjork, who is passionate about digital photography, is the owner and editor of Digicamhelp.Gail is the author of three illustrated ebooks about digital photography. A number of her photos and digital photography related articles appear at other websites.In 2006, a series of her photos, People in the Louvre, were exhibited at the Underground Photo Gallery
in Iisalmi Finland. Eight of her photos taken in the Florida scrub are on permanent exhibition at Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Florida.Gail served twelve years as an elected member of The School Board of Palm Beach County, Florida, one of the largest school districts in the U.S. She has also been the editor of a small town newspaper and a free-lance writer. Gail and her husband owned and ran several small businesses.