Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for my weekly newsletter, "Confident Computing", for more solutions you can use to make your life easier. Click here.

Is Geotagging My Photos a Bad Thing?

//
At the start of a public gathering event for my child’s school today, the principal surprised me by requesting that parents who took photos of the event with their mobile phones should switch off the geotagging function because it can expose the children to risks associated with privacy. I later took her aside and she explained to me about having recently learned that hackers are able to steal an image uploaded to one of the many image sharing sites or the iCloud as she described it, merely by using the geodetic coordinates of the location where the picture was taken. Is this true or yet another contemporary urban myth?

Urban myth or true fact? Well, it’s somewhere in-between.

Let’s begin by talking about what the principal said. Then, I’ll explain where she might be getting confused about geotagging.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

GPS and metadata in your pictures

Many cell phones and even some digital cameras can determine your current location on the planet by using the GPS system to figure out where you are. You’ve seen this already with map applications that give you a little pinpoint that show you exactly where you are on the map. If you move, you’ll see that point move with you.

Many cameras (especially the one in your cell phone) have that same technology. When you take a picture, your camera saves “metadata”, or data about the data; in this case  information about the picture. This data might include what the resolution of your picture is, what the color depth is, what the exposure was, and so on.

And it can also include the latitude and longitude of where the photo was taken.

Photos can always be stolen

Many people actually appreciate that functionality to help them identify where pictures were taken. When posting to a social media site, some sites use the geotagging information to automatically show viewers where the picture was taken. But, it does expose more information than most people realize.

For example, if you take a picture of your child at a school and post it publicly anywhere, then anyone can look at that picture and with the use of a couple of very simple tools, identify specifically where that photo was taken.

But this kind of metadata doesn’t make the photos more interesting or easier to steal. Photos can be stolen whenever they’re posted to a public site, such as Facebook or a website like Flickr. With the geotagging metadata, the person downloading the picture just knows where the photo was taken.

Worst-case scenario

Now, if you want to be paranoid, there is a scenario where this might be harmful. Let’s say that there’s a search engine that could find pictures by geotagged information. If someone wanted pictures of all the children that went to that school, all they would need to do is use this geotagging search engine to find pictures that were taken at your school’s location.

Yes, that sounds kind of creepy, but I have never heard of anybody actually doing this. I can’t even think of a geotagging search engine. Still, it is theoretically possible.

Would I worry it? Probably not. To me the bigger question is typically whether you want pictures of your children posted publicly at all, not whether the pictures include location information.

That’s why I’m concerned about the principal requesting that you turn geotagging off as some kind of a security measure.

Now, there’s no harm in turning it off, but I don’t want you to believe this somehow prevents photos from being stolen. The photos can still be viewed publicly and stolen.

6 comments on “Is Geotagging My Photos a Bad Thing?”

  1. I’m not an expert on this (and from what I’ve read), everytime you post a picture on the internet there’s always a chance that it will be stolen. You take that risk everytime. There’s the right-click mouse option, but even if that’s disabled there are still programs that enable someone to download the picture. Turning off geotag will not solve this problem.

  2. When I taught at a public school in California, the school wouldn’t allow photos of the students to be posted on the school website. The principal explained that in some cases there might be a relative or other person with a restraining order to keep away from a particular child. Such a rule was put in place in order to protect these children. It might be possible they don’t allow geotagging for similar reasons. Preventing geotagging probably wouldn’t help in this case, as simply posting the photo and mentioning the school would cause the same problems. but perhaps the principal in this case though it would prevent them.

  3. This article has just made me realise that people will also figure out where you live using geotagging, whenever you take photos at home. Lots of sicko’s out there who may want to cause you or your family harm, so maybe it is better to switch off geotagging until you are on holiday, or absolutely need the geotagging info in your photos.

  4. I just right clicked on a photo on my wife’s Facebook page and saved it to the desktop. I then found the original photo on my hard drive and compared the properties of both photos. Looking at the Summary tab, Facebook has stripped out all of the metadata from the original photo (camera, focal length, shutter speed, etc.). In fact, it doesn’t even have the same dimensions or resolution as the original.

    Now my camera doesn’t get GPS co-ordinates, but I suspect Facebook would have stripped those out as well. And I don’t use any other social media, so I can’t say what other websites do, but I suspect they do the same to reduce the amount of disk space (107 kb vs 456 kb).

    Considering that most people are going to take the photos and post them on Facebook or other social media, and considering that Facebook (and likely other social media) strip down the photo, I think the risk is actually minimal. The greater risk is, as Mark said, posting it to Facebook and filling in the details such as where the picture was taken.

  5. If you just want a quick and easy way to visualise an image’s location, I would suggest http://www.pic2map.com which actually utilizes EXIF GPS information to map a photo. For photos without GPS data, it can be used as a simple online EXIF viewer, that shows some basic information.

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article. Comments indicating you've not read the article will be removed.
  • Comment on the article. New question? Start with search, at the top of the page. Off-topic comments will be removed.
  • No personal information. Email addresses, phone numbers and such will be removed.
  • Add to the discussion. Comments that do not — typically off-topic or content-free comments — will be removed.

All comments containing links will be moderated before publication. Anything that looks the least bit like spam will be removed.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.