Geotagging Dangers

“Tag you’re it!” is a phrase I hear quite often as my children play the game of “tag” with each other and their friends at a park or backyard.  But I don’t want to see it on a Facebook page, as a Tweet on Twitter or on a website.  The latest technology on smartphones like the Blackberry, Android and iPhone systems, as well as many digital cameras, do just that.  They say “tag you’re it” and show just where “it” is, by placing the longitude and latitude of your position within the photo when you take a picture.

Just because you don’t see it on the photograph doesn’t mean that the geotag isn’t there.  Don’t’ think that you would have to turn on the technology for it to embed geotags on your photographs either.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.

How risky are geotags?  Well imagine that you take a photo of your car sitting in your driveway or parked in front of your house.  Now you post it to the web and people with the know how can easily find out exactly where your house it located.

Could this happen to you?

Well it happened to Adam Savage, host of Mythbusters.  He posted a picture of his Toyota Landcruiser parked in front of his house.

Mr. Savage explained that he was aware of geotags but had forgotten to disable the function on his iPhone before he took a photo of his car and posted it to Twitter.

Carri Bugbee was at a restaurant with friends when the waiter told her she had a phone call.  Bugbee had “checked in” with foursquare, a social networking site, which has displayed her exact location.  The caller didn’t identify himself but warned Bugbee she was putting herself at risk and making it easy for someone to find her home.  When Bugbee laughed off his warnings, he began a string of curses and insults.

“I was totally creeped out,” Bugbee recalls.

“What is often forgotten is that you’re not really talking to a small group of friends,” says Douglas Salane, director of the Center for Cybercrime Studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You’re potentially talking to anyone on the Internet.”

Are there any safeguards on websites?

Sites like Facebook and Match.com format photos in a way that geotag info is not always saved when an image is uploaded.  It’s not a built in safety net but more like incidental protection.

Flickr took steps last year to block access to geotags unless explicitly requested by the Flickr user to leave it.

Many photos posted to Twitter contain the geotags.  Imagine having a photo taken at your home and then tweeting that you’re on vacation.

Craigslist photos and homemade YouTube videos can also contain geotags.

“There are so many places where people upload photos, like personal blogs and bulletin boards,” said Johannes B. Ullrich, chief technology officer of the SANS Technology Institute, a network security company.

ICanStalkU.com is trying to make people aware of geotags and their risks.  ICanStalkU.com  displays a  stream of geotagged photos posted on Twitter and sends the photo poster a notification via Twitter.

“The reaction from people is either anger, like ‘I’m going to punch you out,’ or ‘No duh, like I didn’t already know that’ or ‘Oh my God, I had no idea,’ ” said security consultant Larry Pesce.

How can I turn off geotags on my smartphone or camera?

Unfortunately the new products haven’t made it easy to turn of geotags.  The options are often several menus in.  Once you find the settings for “location” you can choose “off” or “don’t allow.”

ICanStalkU.com offers step by step instructions on disabling the geotags on Blackberry, Palm, Android and iPhone devices.