Your camera may be telling the world where you are

by Matt Ruff on August 12, 2010

An article in today’s Times points out a surprising (to me) security vulnerability in smartphone and other GPS-equipped cameras: They mark images with invisible but easily readable* “geotags” pinpointing where (and when) the photo was taken. Take a picture with an iPhone or a Droid inside your house, post it on the Web, and you’ve just shared your home address with the Internet. Combine that picture with a blog post about your vacation plans, and, well… you didn’t really need that TV or stereo, did you?

Although this tagging feature can be turned off, the default for most devices is to have it turned on—and not make an effort to notify you that it even exists.

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*The Times article includes links to download plug-ins for Firefox and Internet Explorer that let you scan online photos for tagged info. If you want to check photos you’ve already uploaded for geotags, this is an easy way to do it.

gkr August 12, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Eh. It would be much easier to see if I was away on vacation by watching to see if anyone goes in or out of my place. Extra bonus, don’t need to wait for me to go on vacation. Can just wait for me to go to the grocery.

In other words, there are hundreds of ways to see if I am not home. Geotags in cameras aren’t really a worry.

Ted Chiang August 13, 2010 at 12:00 am

Agreed. While this is a privacy hole worth closing, I don’t see it as a serious burglary tool. What are the odds that a burglar will see a photo online of a house that is within driving distance? And how many burglars will have the patience to follow that person’s blog until a post about vacation plans appears? Conventional methods of casing a joint would give better results.

Matt Ruff August 13, 2010 at 9:25 am

The suggestion in the Times article is that you could write a program to do an automated online search for photos that are (a) geotagged within a certain area and (b) appear on web pages with key phrases like “on vacation.” Don’t know how practical this would really be, but it sounds at least plausible.

I agree that this is probably much less of a concern than having the geotag exploited by an obsessive stalker.

Lisa Gold August 13, 2010 at 9:23 am

The threat isn’t ordinary burglars, it’s stalkers and internet trolls who can do a lot of damage with just a little personal information about you. It’s not just famous people who are potential targets, which is why everyone should err on the side of caution.

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