Geotagging and the Downfall of the Entire Galaxy

I’ll try to boil this down, but first some background.  When you take a digital photo, very specific information about that photo is stored in that photo’s properties.  This information is called EXIF information, which is short for EXchangable Image File format, and can tell you what exact date and time the photo was taken and what camera the photo was taken on.  If your camera has a built-in GPS, this geographic information can even get entered into the EXIF info as to where the photo was taken. Hence the term geotagging, or tagging the geographic information.  You can view this info in many third party EXIF viewers, or even from within Windows – try right-clicking the photo and looking at its properties.  It should display everything it knows under the details tab, including EXIF info.  If you view the entire folder in DETAILS view (as opposed to, say, thumbnails) you can even sort by this info.  Quite handy – you can now sort your photos by what camera it was taken with, or by what date and time the photo was taken.

So why do we care?  First, the good news

exif004I’ll use my own personal example – one day, my hard drive crashed.  Oh no, there were photos on there that weren’t backed up yet!  (You do back your crap up, don’t you?)  I used a bootable Linux distro and, armed with some data recovery software, got my photos back off the failed drive, but the software named each file sequentially (file001.jpg, file002.jpg, etc.).  The photo properties will tell me the date the photo was taken, what camera was used to take the photo, etc.  I can then sort my photos and rename them or move them into new folders based on this information.  Some digital photography competitions look at this EXIF information to determine authenticity – was that photo of the Washington Monument actually taken at the Washington Monument?  And for photo-philes (that is to say, people who know much more about cameras than I do), it is helpful to note how a photo was taken and with what hardware.  So this EXIF information that is stored inside each photo’s properties can be very helpful.

The Bad News

Anyone who accesses the photo could potentially view this EXIF information and use it for nefarious purposes.  For example, someone could potentially see a photo online and determine exactly where and when this photo was taken.  They could then very easily develop a map of where an individual routinely goes, and when they frequent said locations.  Once that info is determined, they could gain access to that individual for whatever reason and steal their socks or harvest their kidneys.  This could potentially include every pedophile, abductor, jealous ex-___friend, or crazy stalker who could potentially develop a pattern of where and when photos are taken. I won’t try spelling out every potential scenario here, because frankly the scare media circus has already done all this for prime time television.

Before We Panic and Sell Our Stuff and Move to Uzbekistan

1) To view the geographical EXIF information, a cameraphone must first have geotagging enabled.  This isn’t always done by default, and is worth checking into on your phone.  On my old Blackberry (thank the maker it’s gone now), it was not turned on.  But on my Droid X it was.  And my iPhone at least had the good graces to ask me if I want it enabled or not in the setup wizard.  If geotagging is enabled at the time the photo was taken, the longitude and latitude are embedded in the photo’s EXIF properties.  If anyone accesses that original photo, they get all the properties, including the location taken.

exif0022) Where you place / upload / store the photos must be able to display the geotagging exif data.  Many sites do not do this by default – for example, this photo of some rather delicious chili dogs with mustard and onions was uploaded to Facebook from a phone that had the geotagging info enabled.  The photo ON MY PHONE displays the longitude and latitude in its EXIF properties.  But the photo on Facebook (a copy of the original) does NOT have any EXIF data – it was has apparently been stripped off when the file was uploaded from my phone to Facebook.

If it does matter to you that someone could potentially see exactly where a photo was taken, nip your dark nightmares in the bud by deactivating geotagging on the device.  If you want to keep this information, but don’t want to share it, make sure the information is stripped when you share the photo.  Or simply edit the properties of the photo before sharing it.  And if you don’t care about any of this, then you probably stopped reading this thread after the first few words and as such I can call you names without fear of retribution.  Your mother was a hamster and your father smells of elderberries.

Now Let’s Play

Here is a photo I took on a Droid X with geotagging enabled.  I then copied it to my Windows 7 computer to play with.


Now I right-click the image and view its properties.


Within the properties, I go to the Details tab.


Woop there it is, under the GPS category!


But what does that even mean?  Why are we here on this desolate radiated rock, sharing piles of pixels on a World Wide Web!?  I AM SO AFRAID!  HELP ME, OBI WAN!!!  Oh sorry, I got carried away.  Let’s enter those coordinates into Google Maps to see what we can see.


And botta bing, there is the exact location I took the photo.  Bonus points to whoever tells me where that is.

Note: This Blog post was posted back in 2011 on a retired blog of mine, but I find it timely enough to tweak and re-post here.  Enjoy!

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