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Just when you thought it might be safe to let the kids out of the house, the news media comes up with even more scary stuff that you didn’t know about. This time geotagged photographs are the culprit. Two separate news outlets – MSNBC and ABC, have aired segments on the dangers of posting geotagged photographs online.
Here’s MSNBC’s segment…
…and here’s the ABC segment…
In both of these, there are some real dangers highlighted, but some of these are taken out of context, and made to seem more dangerous than they are. I’m a BIG proponent of geotagging photographs as a way of documenting when and where photographs are taken. Both of these seem to make geotagging a bad word, and something to be avoided all together. That’s just not the case.
First, the problems highlighted in the video segments only apply to specific situations. Automatic geotagging isn’t available on most standard cameras. It’s something that has to be done after the photos are taken. The problems described here only apply to photos taken with GPS-enabled smart phones.
Secondly, many websites are changing the way images are displayed so that the EXIF data is not visible. I tried the technique described for viewing the photos, and it no longer works for Facebook. In Flickr you can set the location privacy of your photos. Panoramio is all about geotagging, so don’t even post them there if you don’t want folks to know where they were taken.
I checked a couple of other popular photo hosting sites, specifically Webshots and Photobucket. These use some sort of Flash player to display the images, so right-clicking is disabled. I haven’t checked other sites, but this seems to be a similar trend. Sure, a determined person might be able to download the file with the EXIF data and extract the location, but it’s not as easily done as the videos seem to indicate. However, if these are posted straight to a website or blog, then the data might be available.
For some time I’ve been concerned about the dangers of sharing too much information about location. (Previous blog posts here and here.) As much of a geotagging, GPS geek as I am, I’m not a fan of FourSquare, BriteKite, Facebook Locations, or any of those other place-related services. I don’t mind sharing where I’ve been, but it just seems like one is asking for trouble by constantly providing up-to-the-minute location information.
As with the website I pointed out in my previous post, Please Rob Me, an analogous site called I Can Stalk U has been created to raise awareness of these dangers. This website pulls location data from images posted to TwitPics and displays it on a map.
It all boils down to using common sense. Be aware of what geotagging is and when it’s appropriate to use it. When shooting with my regular cameras, I usually don’t geotag photos around my house. I do, however, geotag just about everything else. I usually don’t make photos of children available to the public, and when I do I’m careful about keeping location data hidden. I also tend to upload geotagged information after I’m long gone from a location, rather than at the spur of the moment.
Geotagging is a great way to document a trip or any other location-related data. I use it in conjunction with my GPS tracks to record locations of genealogy and historical sites. Just like any other privacy-related issue, it can cause problems if you don’t pay attention to what you’re posting online.