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.
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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.
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.