Is Your Smartphone Telling Secrets?

Category: Mobile , Privacy

I recently heard that some mobile phones tag all photos with the GPS coordinates where they were taken. Is this true, and if so, what can be done about this privacy exposure?

Smartphones and Geotagging - Hidden Risks

If you are concerned about privacy, you may want to adjust your smartphone's geotagging settings. Most people are surprised when they learn what geotagging is and how it can expose them to thieves, kidnappers, and other criminals.

Geotagging is the process of inserting location-identifying metadata into media, which may include text messages, SMS messages, videos or photos. Metadata is information hidden in a part of a file that users do not normally see. Examples of metadata include the date and time a file was created; the name of the device used to create it; and perhaps the name of the user whose device was used. Metadata can also include very accurate location information, usually in the form of latitude and longitude data.

The problem, say privacy experts, is that users are often unaware of geotags and how they can be used by criminals. That picture you posted on Facebook of your little girl swinging at the park may contain all the information a child molester needs to find that park, and your little girl. The photo of an expensive item you're trying to sell on Craigslist may tell a burglar your street address. (Did you know that Google Maps will instantly translate latitude and longitude into a street address, and even map directions to it?) Photos and videos of you containing geotags may bring unwanted attention.
Smartphone Geotagging

Geotagging is enabled by default in most smartphones. It's the foundation of many location-based services that users want, such as the ability to ask your smartphone for directions to the nearest pizza parlor. Advertisers like geotagging, too, because it enables them to beam ads only to people near enough to respond to them. Geotags are automatically inserted into photos and videos shot with smartphones to help users recall where and when the images were taken.

Turning Off Geotagging

You can turn off geotagging for some applications - such as photos - and leave it enabled for others, like mapping and directions. The relevant controls are buried in your smartphone's settings, often under the name "location services". A website named ICanStalkU contains detailed instructions for disabling geotagging on iPhone, Blackberry, Palm, and Android smartphones.

Smartphones are not the only geotagging tattletales. Twitter posts may contain geotag information, if you have enabled geotagging in your Twitter account settings. A Firefox plugin called EXIF View will display the location from which a Tweet was sent with a simple right-click. EXIF View can just as easily read all the metadata in any type of file which contains metadata. Facebook also has a geotagging feature which users must explicitly enable.

Geotagging is yet another two-edged technology tool. It enables many features and services that users want, but it also enables criminal activity in ways that are not obvious.

If you take photos with a smartphone, are you exposed? Post your comment or question below...

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