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Geotagging invades Privacy
Through geotagging, you can put spatial information in your pictures, making it easy to find out where you took a particular photograph. The exact GPS coordinates are impressed into the EXIF image data. You can then put your photographs on a map and share it.
My Dad used to travel a lot when he was younger. He was a service technician and he got around. He infected me with the travel bug. I still love to listen to his tales of foreign places. Years take their toll on memories, and sometimes my Dad cannot remember where he took a photo anymore. (I also bought him a slide scanner to prevent his pictures from fading away.)
How different is our world by comparison? We take digital photographs whose color will never fade and now we can even geo-tag them, so that we may never forget where we took a photo. Years later, we can go back to precisely the same spot and see what changed. We can share special places with others or simply promote our photography (Panoramio, Flickr).
The prices for GPS receivers have eroded. Even my iPhone has one already built in. It takes photographs and automatically attaches GPS data. Jobo and other accessory makers have developed GPS receivers that record a location every time you press the shutter release button on your camera, allowing you to combine them later on your PC. For several years, I used to carry a small Garmin GPS, recording track logs and using programs like JetPhoto Studio, Google gpicsync or Microsoft Location Stamper to put the GPS data into my digital files. Geotagging is now a mainstream technology and is more popular than ever.
However, new technologies always bear dangers of exploitation.
Our society is becoming mobile. Cell phones are more powerful than computers were a decade ago. With their built in GPS receivers and cameras, we are starting to photo-blog on the go. The iPhone has already several applications available for photo bloggers.
With these real time photo blogs springing up, people now can track you. They can find our where you have been, what city you live in and even your address.
Monitoring your geotags tells potential thieves when you are away from home.
If you have enemies, well versed with computers, you should consider that you are telling them about your daily routine.
The iPhone has a major flaw in its software. Every application that wants to use location information asks your permission, but only until you happen to agree twice in a row. From then on, all your photographs will be geotagged. It is easy to forget, especially if you are new to the phone or if you share it with others. It happened to me and it can easily happen to others.
Apple buried the reset for location warnings in the depths of the iPhone configuration menu. A user has to find his/her way through a couple of sub-menus before he/she finds the reset.
Fortunately, the iPhone has many more restrictions. It does not allow you to email the 2MP picture directly, but automatically resizes them to 640x480. It removes all EXIF data from the image and in the process loses the GPS information.
But many photoblog applications take pictures directly, circumventing this restriction.
In the process of simplifying applications and user interfaces, companies often make it harder to protect privacy.
The Major Security Leak
Most security systems have a serious flaw; the human operator. Online photo publishing websites like Flickr, Smugmug and Panoramio let you turn off Geo information for your pictures, but many Flickr users may not even be aware of it.
As we start to geo-tag all our pictures, we become insensitive to the fact. When a friend takes a photograph at our party, he may not even be aware that he is revealing the location of our house. And even if we do not personally endeavor in such foolishness, we may not feel comfortable policing our friends during parties or collect their cell phones together with their car keys.
What about people we photograph in the streets? I enjoy street photography, but I make sure that the precise location and precise time are not always clear. Would such a photograph hold up in court?
When the government plans to install a new surveillance system, everyone is up in shambles over it, vigorously discussing privacy laws. I think the surveillance fetishists in our governments can stop worrying. Soon we will do all the work for them. Their computers just need to pull the data from online resources like Flickr to get coverage superior to even Orwell's worst nightmares.
I am sure the problem is not as severe (yet) as it may sound, but accidents do happen.
What if the researcher who discovered the new tribe in the rainforests of Brazil had accidentally published geographical data with his images? Would the tribe still be there or would they now offer plane rides over the latest tourist spectacle?
Although the likelihood of individual accidents is low, it compounds with every new user and the implications are potentially devastating to individuals.When a child predator finds victims online, everyone cries out for more regulation and wonders how this could happen, but in reality we all play an active role in preventing such issues from happening. The photograph on the left is a rather harmless example I found on Flickr.
Tip: I have GEO data attached to most of my recent images in case you would like to find out where I stood when I took an image. In some cases, I removed it or it was removed during processing (HDR).
What can you do
Raising awareness is the first step. When you are in public, you do not have much right to privacy, but when you are at home, you can demand that people turn off their GPS receivers.
You can use free software to inspect the exif data of your pictures before you upload them anywhere and you could delay your blogging (or randomize it).
Reality turns out worse than paranoia. Do not be the one caught unprepared.
Click the buttons below to spread the word. Tell people how to be safe!