How to Avoid the Potential Risks of Geotagging
Geotagging can be a wonderful feature on the internet because it allows people to know where you took a picture of a sunset, a famous event, or even allows you to locate your own past memories in a few clicks. Such information can make it easier for you to arrange photos, let friends know where they can have a similar experience and share with the world the types of things you like doing and where.
On the darker side, however, there is a risk of “social surveillance by GPS” with geotagging. People intent on stalking you can make use of public geotagging information to pinpoint your location, home, and even your activities with very little effort. What that can mean in terms of your safety and security will depend on who you are, where you live, and the value to anyone watching your movements but it does pay to be careful. Avoiding the risks of geotagging is one more important thing to keep in mind in this day and age of diminishing privacy, and here are some suggestions to help.
Be aware of the ability for your images to be geotagged. Geotagging is the process of adding geographical identification to photographs, video, websites and SMS messages. It is the equivalent of adding a 10-digit grid coordinate to everything you post on the internet. Many people are unaware of geotagging possibilities held in the gadgets they own, while for others, they know but forget to disable them. Images from many digital cameras and cell phones capture not only the picture but all the related information ranging from make of the camera to location and latitude where the image was taken.
While not all cameras capture the geotagging information, a lot of cameras do, such as the Canon brand; and such cameras will include the metadata (shutter speeds, flash, and other settings) embedded into the individual photo. In GPS devices like iPhones and other smartphones, additional information is automatically captured, such as longitude and latitude of where the image was taken. Using particular tools and programs, a person determined to find out this type of information can decipher any geotagged image and retrieve the information for their own purposes.
- Geotagging websites such as Facebook’s Places, Instagram, Google Maps among other are also able to pinpoint your location when you check into public places such as cafes, restaurants, and theaters.
- Photo sites such as Flickr and Picasa can provide geotagging information but this is not an automatic function.
Understand the risks involved. Geotagging information could potentially give someone intent on scaring you (such as a stalker) or a potential house thief the opportunity to know your exact whereabouts, particularly where you’ve cross-posted your check-ins on places such as Twitter and any other sites. For example, say you take a photo of your favorite garden rose, posted it online and left a message on Twitter about the photo: “Just took this rose in my garden before I left the house 5 mins ago”. In doing this, you’ve just signaled to anyone watching your account that you’ve left your house and if they wanted to find the address via geotagging and you haven’t removed that information, it can be found.
- Another problem with geotagging is that it has the potential to “establish patterns” of your movements. If you post photos or use geotracking sites on a regular basis, it is possible for someone to work out where you end up at particular times during the day. This might allow a person to determine where you work and live, simply by watching your daily patterns.
Know when to use the geotagging feature and when not to. There will be occasions when it’s clearly not appropriate to use geotagging on images, especially where the information you’re sharing is about a private residence, such as the location of your home or another person’s private residence:
- Private locations such as residences, schools, a beach house, or a hotel room are private and it’s never wise to broadcast the address by geotagging.
- Never geotag photos containing children.
- Public settings such as a beach, an amusement park, a camping trip in the mountains, and so forth, might be fine for geotagging and can be a great way to keep tabs on the dates and locations of vacations and fun days. All the same, if this information has the ability to reveal something personal about yourself that should not be made public, think twice.
- House or college dorm parties might be the highlight of your weekend but it’s important to be cautious when posting pictures of the event to the internet.
Know how to disable your cell phone’s or camera’s geotagging feature. Every smartphone has the geotagging feature automatically set to operate, so you need to put in the effort to prevent it from doing this. It’s recommended that you disable the geotagging ability and enable it again when you make a conscious decision to use it; it’s far better to opt in than to try to remember to opt out.
- If using an iPhone, disable it through the “Settings” page of the geotagging program. Tap “Settings”, then “General” and then “Location Services”. Disable the applications that use GPS data. For older iPhones, tap “Reset Location Warnings” under “Reset” to cause the phone to prompt you about using geolocations when using the relevant applications. If you have a hard time remembering to disable the geolocating features of your iPhone, consider leaving it off permanently.
- On a Blackberry, go to the camera icon. Press the “Menu” button, select “Options” and set the geotagging option to “Disabled”. Click “Save”.
- On an Android, start the camera application. Open the menu to the left and go to “Settings”. Turn off “Geotagging” or “Location storage” (the name depends on the version of Android you own).
- For your digital camera, read the user manual. Not all digital cameras come with geotagging and the manual will explain whether it does and how to shut off the GPS features.
If using geotagging websites, control with great care the people who are able to see where you’re located. Each website differs in how it confines your information to only those people whom you want seeing it; always be sure to read the instructions carefully and don’t just rely on the default setting which might be allowing anyone to see your whereabouts (or the metadata in your images, such as on photo sites).
- Be aware of the tags you’re using. Many people include the name of the city, town, or country with the photo in the tags, and there are many location-specific tags too. Tagging photos with an exact location on the internet allows random people to track any individual’s location and correlate it with other information. The tags are completely within your control, so think carefully about the information you share.
- Always check a geotagging site’s default settings and what needs to be done to fix automatic geotagging defaults. Facebook Places is active until disabled – read How to disable Facebook Places for the instructions.
Be aware where you post your pictures and what geotagged information you leave. Security and safety come first. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of geotagging pictures on the internet, either upload them to a website that has different security settings that can be easily managed to protect your privacy, like Facebook, or use another image capturing device that lacks a GPS enabled feature.
- If you want to wipe geotagging information from your photos, look for free EXIF editors online. These will help you to wipe that information from the photos.
- Don’t check in to geotagging sites from home and don’t include your GPS coordinates in your Twitter updates.