What are Your Online Images Telling the Bad Guys?


Fall 2011 — Security News and Advice

These days it is easier than ever for the bad guys to find out more about where you go and what you do with the help of a new technology called geotagging. Geotagging tracks exactly where photos and videos are taken by including data in the image file that records your longitude and latitude. This technology is prevalent in images taken by both smartphones and digital cameras.

Once you upload a photo or video to a social networking site or other online destination, all it takes is a few mouse clicks for a cybercriminal to see where the image was taken, revealing your exact location.

This is troublesome because many of us are unaware of this tracking feature, even though sharing images online has become immensely popular. Websites such as Instagram, Flickr and YouTube are filled with pictures and videos that include location information.

Even on websites that are not specifically designed for image sharing, there is the danger that your location information can fall into the wrong hands. For instance, say you are trying to sell your car and you put an ad on Craigslist. In the ad you let interested parties know that they can come by after 3 p.m. to take a look at the car. If you include a picture that has been geotagged, a cybercriminal could pinpoint your location, verify it using Google Street View, and then come by your house before 3 p.m. to try and rob you. If this sounds far-fetched, consider that there are free online tools that create maps from geotagged information, making this crime easy.

In an even more disturbing scenario, you could share a picture of your child on a social networking site that gives away the exact location of your child's school or favorite playground, depending on where the picture is taken. This could become dangerous if you are connected online with people you don't know who have bad intentions.

Even sharing vacation photos online can lead to trouble, if you post them while you are still away. For instance, say you upload a picture of a beautiful sunset in Hawaii to your Facebook page with the comment "Having a great vacation!" A thief could potentially see the post, realize you're away, and try to rob your home. They could look at the geotagging information on previous pictures you've posted to find your address.

While these are unpleasant things to think about, you can take steps to increase your privacy and prevent this data from being shared. Here are some tips to keep you and your location information safe:

  1. The first thing you want to do is turn off the GPS (Global Positioning Service) function on your smartphone camera or digital camera, especially if you know you're going to be sharing your images online. Instructions on how to turn off geotagging will vary, but we suggest referring to your phone or camera's manual for further instructions on how to adjust this feature.
  2. Check your privacy settings on social networks and photo sharing sites. Make sure that you are only sharing information with friends and family. Also, make sure that you only accept people into your network that you know in real life.
  3. Be aware of the fact that the information you share on one social network may be linked to another. For instance, a photo you post to Twitter may automatically post to your Facebook profile. Because of this, it's important that you check the privacy settings on all your accounts.
  4. Finally, be careful about what images you're sharing and when you are sharing them. Rather than uploading a picture that reveals your location the moment you take it, wait until you get home to upload it.

Technology such as geotagging can be fun and convenient in many applications, but it's never a good idea to give out your exact location to strangers online. And remember that whatever you post online is public, even if your privacy settings are set correctly. Your image could be taken and posted elsewhere, where you have no control over who sees it.

The good news is as long as you are aware of what information you're sharing you'll be able to take precautions and still enjoy the latest technologies.

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