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The technology behind GPS, or global positioning services, offers conveniences that can be useful, as evidenced by the explosive popularity of GPS devices used for directions. As the technology has been refined, features like restaurant reviews, locations for hospitals and even the nearest Starbucks were added to GPS systems. GPS technology was enabled in some of the first smartphones developed; in fact, every smartphone manufactured after 2005 is required to contain GPS enabling. As with many new technological developments designed to make our lives easier, GPS technology has also been exploited by individuals with malicious intent. Available software like Picture Information Extractor 6.4 makes it easy to extract detailed information from someone else’s photos.

How does it work?

GPS technology is based on latitude and longitude coordinates and can provide real-time locational data. The popularity of the check-in feature on Facebook and other social media platforms like FourSquare creates a visible pattern of user’s movements that can have unintended consequences. What consumers may not fully grasp is that this information is also embedded into any photographs taken on a smartphone or digital camera. Locational information for each photo is automatically stored as metadata that cannot be seen by the naked eye. However, a computer can extract this information. Any time a photo is posted on a social media platform like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn this metadata is included.

While this metadata may be helpful for photographers, the technology also puts some users at risk for foul play. Disastrous consequences occurred in 2007 when soldiers in Iraq posted photos that were taken during a mission. Iraqi forces used the metadata from these photos to determine the exact location of U.S. soldiers and destroyed four AH-64 Apache helicopters. Adam Savage, the host of the popular “Mythbusters” TV show, photographed his car parked in front of his house and tweeted it with the caption, “Now it’s off to work.” While this episode ended without crime, Savage posted a photo containing metadata and announced to the world that he was not going to be at home – potentially a big opportunity for burglars.

The technology can be useful for law enforcement. In April of 2012 a member of the Anonymous hacker group, wanted by the FBI, was arrested after posting online photos that revealed his home address. Famous software developer John McAfee, wanted in connection to a murder charge in Belize, lived in hiding and successfully avoided authorities for several years. When a reporter from Vice magazine met with McAfee in Guatemala to conduct an interview, he posted a photograph on the Vice website. A hacker extracted the coordinates of the photo and tweeted them – McAfee was then arrested.

Social media enthusiasts should be aware of how photos and locational data can put them at risk. All social media platforms use GPS technology to some degree. Regularly posting photos with embedded metadata can reveal your habits, making you vulnerable to potential stalkers or criminals. For example, software like creepy can display a map that details when and where your photos were taken – with only a Flickr user name. Employers and college admissions graduates also routinely check social media platforms for hints about people, sometimes hiring firms like The MBA Exchange to scour the Internet for damaging information.

So how can I protect myself?

It may not be immediately apparent, but you can disable locational data from displaying in your phone or camera’s metadata. The best option is to disable geotagging. These resources can show you how:

  • Geotagging: Along with a helpful description of geotagging and its function, this site offers step-by-step directions complete with screenshots on disabling this function on iPhones and devices on Google’s Android platform.

 

  • I Can Stalk U: Aside from its slightly creepy name, this website offers detailed descriptions on disabling geotagging on Apple’s iOS 3x devices, Droid phones, BlackBerries and Palm Pre devices.

For existing photos that already contain GPS metadata, there are resources available to strip locational information, such as:

  • Remove a geotag: These instructions display how to strip GPS data in any photos in Picasa, Google’s popular photo management tool.

Geotag Security: Windows offers this free software program that scrubs all geotagging data from existing photos on PCs or Macs. Simply download the software and select the folders that you need to scan, and Geotag Security does the rest.

Image credit: walkingsf