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The Resource Center Online Security Issues & Protection | post

Protect your identity by considering whether to use locations settings on pictures you post

by Steve Schwartz on

In order to protect your identity you need to worry about more than your Social Security number and banking information. Your identity is composed of many facets, some of which you may not have considered. Your location is one of those factors you may not have thought much about.

It's called "geotagging"; the process of location information being automatically added to content such as photographs or videos. It is made possible by Global Positioning System satellite technology (GPS). Many, in fact most, smartphones and digital cameras come with built-in technology which uses the GPS system to automatically embed into photos and videos the location in which the picture was taken or the video shot. At the minimum, geotagging embeds the latitude and longitude coordinates, but some systems translate those coordinates into specific locations, often with an accuracy of plus or minus less than one meter.

Geotagging can be good and useful. It can be invaluable when later sorting photos. You look at a shot with some people posing in front of a building, a lake or some other natural feature and you struggle to remember where the picture - or video - was shot. The GPS data that geotagging has embedded in the picture or video will tell you possibly down to the name of the restaurant or store or physical landmark. Now you can catalog the photo or write an explanation of the when and how of the picture came about.

But that same data can actually lead to a number of unintended consequences including theft of identity.

If you are using the location data to sort your pictures or to jog your memory, then that is the primary purpose for which it was intended. But consider that same embedded data when you post that photo or video on Facebook, Instagram or FourSquare or send it out via Twitter. Your friends might like to know where a photo was shot, but so too might a thief or a potential stalker.

You might go to great lengths to protect your identity, never realizing that a good tracking software program can pinpoint a location that when correlated with other information can lead to a potential theft of identity.

It might lead a thief to confirm the whole family is at the lake or the beach and thus that the family home is sitting empty and ripe for a break-in even though the newspaper has been stopped and the mail being held, so those telltale signs have been eliminated. Cyber criminals can quickly and easily find out when a person's home is empty because the homeowner might post geotagged and time-stamped info both about their home address and their vacation residence, for example.

Lest you think this is farfetched, police around the country have arrested burglars who admitted they targeted homes by tracking homeowners from photos posted online. Likewise many young people who communicate with people they meet online think they are doing so in relative anonymity because they never give any hint of where they live. But have they posted a photo that pinpoints that location down to within 15 feet?

The simplest way to avoid the potential problem is to turn off the location setting or geotagging feature on your smartphone or camera. This can be done from within the location section or the security section depending on the phone or camera. But if geotagging is a useful tool in sorting or cataloging your photos, you don't want to eliminate the feature altogether.

There are other ways to protract your identity. A good general rule of thumb is you should not post photos directly from your smartphone because if the GPS feature has not been turned off then the photos will definitely be geotagged.  Instead, download the photos from your phone to your home computer - desktop or notebook - make a copy and then use one of any number of available software packages to strip the metadata section from the photo (called EXIF data). Now post the copy keeping the tagged original for your own use and enjoyment.