Tag—you're it!

BY J. CARLTON COLLINS, CPA

Q: I overheard someone say that taking pictures with a smartphone is less secure than using a camera; do you have any idea what they might be talking about, and is this true?

A: By default, when you take a picture (or record a video) using your smartphone, your camera adds geotags in the form of metadata (also referred to as EXIF (exchangeable image file format) data) that identifies the date and time, as well as the GPS coordinates where that picture (or video) was taken. Unscrupulous people might access the geotag data contained in pictures shared online to determine where you live, work, eat, jog, attend school, etc.; and they might even use this data to establish your daily routine—sort of like “after-the-fact stalking.”

This type of data embedded in smartphone photos can be easily read with a number of free utilities. For example, I used Sourceforge.net’s free Geotag program (available at tinyurl.com/k3lhkel) to read the geotag data from a seemingly noninvasive picture of my wife and daughter walking our dogs on a beach. As you can see in the screenshot below, the Geotag utility program displays the date and time the picture was taken and offers to pinpoint the location on a map.

 

Facebook and Twitter now remove geotag data from photos and videos you post online, but other websites may not. For example, in 2012 a devious employee working for a well-known restaurant chain posted a shocking photo of deplorable food preparation via Twitter, and in a satisfying twist, the photo’s geotag data, showing the time and location, led officials directly to the culprit. 

Granted, you have to be rather paranoid to believe that someone might actually use your photo’s geotag data against you, but most of us prefer to err on the side of caution. Therefore, following are instructions for disabling the geotagging features for popular smartphones.

  • iPhone 5 (running iOS 7). First, select Settings, General, Reset, Reset Location & Privacy; and then launch the Camera App and select Don’t Allow, when prompted. ( Note: This option will reset all camera settings to the factory defaults.)
  • Android 2.2 and 2.3. Open the Camera app, select the Location icon, and then select Off.
  • BlackBerry 6.0. Open the Camera app, select the Location icon, and then select Disabled.
  • Windows 8. Open the Camera app and select Settings, and uncheck the option titled include location info in pictures I take.


As a side note, I was able to read the geotag data from my neighbor’s online fishing pictures to determine his most guarded and secret fishing spots in the waters off St. Simons Island, Ga.

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