I Know Where You Are: The Implications of Posting Photos to the Internet
How many times have you snapped a picture of yourself, your friends, your kids, your dog, your vacation, or your new car and immediately posted the picture to the internet to share with your family and friends? Posting pictures to the internet, while it may seem harmless enough, may have serious consequences. There are plenty of examples of pictures posted to the internet being copied and used by strangers for evil purposes.[i] In one case, a “mother’s 4-year-old daughter’s photo was pulled off of Flickr and posted on a Brazilian social networking site, where it was rated for ‘sexiness.’”[ii] What may be even scarier is that people may be able to recover information that shows the exact location of the person posting;[iii] “[n]ot only can photos be stolen and used by strangers, but many photos, especially those taken by phones or devices with GPS technology, contain tags that reveal to savvy viewers exactly where the images were snapped. In other words, if a parent takes a photo of their child playing at home and then posts it online, it’s possible for strangers to know exactly where they live.”[iv]
Digital cameras and smart phones with GPS technology enabled store metadata, or “off-screen data that makes the on-screen data work,”[v] which contains the GPS position of the camera at the time the photo was taken. “Such devices relentlessly, silently, gather a person’s time-stamped locations with such precision that sometimes that individual’s speed and direction can be calculated, and record the location data on drives up to sixty-four gigabytes that keep the data for months or longer, even after deletion.”[vi] That information is known as a geotag.[vii] In one case, a woman who posted numerous pictures to her Twitter feed received an anonymous tweet stating that “they knew where she lived.”[viii] She received the tweet from the website “I Can Stalk U,”[ix] a website that existed “[t]o make people aware that they are posting this information when they are posting photos and giving them options on how to disable that functionality.”[x] According to I Can Stalk U, information that someone may find from photos may include: “where you live, who else lives there, your commuting patterns, where you go for lunch each day, who you go to lunch with, why you and your attractive co-worker really like to visit a certain nice restaurant on a regular basis, among many other things.”[xi]
Studies indicate that people “are unaware of the full scope of the threat they face when doing so” and “often do not realize when they publish such information.”[xii] This has serious privacy implications. In one criminal case, “three men burglarized more than 18 homes in the Nashua area of New Hampshire simply by tracking residents’ movements online and, when they were away, broke into their homes and took off with more than $100,000 worth of goods.”[xiii] “Interviewed ex-burglars are already seeing geotagging and social media as their top sources of information for potential victims.”[xiv]
It is clear that educating the public about the dangers of geotagging and how the public can personally ensure that their future photos and video are not geotagged needs to be a priority. On that note, I’m off to disable location services on my iPhone.
[i] Palmer, Kimberley, Post Photos Online? 7 Safety Tips, U.S. News & World Reports, http://money.msn.com/identity-theft/post-photos-online-7-safety-tips-usnews.aspx (Oct. 16, 2011).
[v] Isom, David K., Location Based Electronic Discovery in Criminal and Civil Litigation – Part 1, 24-OCT Utah BJ 28 (Sept./Oct. 2011).
[vii] GPS on Cell Phones Photos Can Put You in Danger, http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2010/10/07/gps-on-cell-phone-photos-can-put-you-in-danger/ (Oct. 7, 2010).
[xii] Freidland, Gerald and Sommer, Robin, Cybercasing the Joint: On the Privacy Implications of Geo-Tagging, http://www.icsi.berkeley.edu/pubs/networking/cybercasinghotsec10.pdf (last visited Sept. 22, 2013).
[xiii] Schiffner, Bill, Could You Fall Victim to Crime Simply by Geotagging Info to your Photos, Digital Trends, http://www.digitaltrends.com/photography/could-you-fall-victim-to-crime-simply-by-geotagging-location-info-to-your-photos/ (July 22, 2013).