Say Cheese! Keep Your Digital Photos from Revealing Your Location

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eHow Tech Blog

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but some can also pinpoint you on a map—even if you’d prefer otherwise. Just ask Internet security mogul John McAfee, creator of the famous McAfee Virus Scan software. He’s the poster boy that illustrates how data embedded in digital photographs can lead to big trouble. And here’s his story of Betrayal by Photo.

After making millions from the sale of his software company, the eccentric McAfee left the rat race and built a beachfront pleasure palace in Belize. There the sexagenarian reportedly experimented with drugs, entertained young women, kept noisy dogs, and generally did his own thing. He admits his dogs annoyed the community, including his closest neighbor Gregory Faull, who often complained about the constant barking.

When Faull was found murdered in 2012, the Belize authorities fingered McAfee (whom they considered a gun-toting, drug-crazed madman) as a prime suspect.

McAfee hightailed it out of Belize to avoid arrest, using his fame and press connections to make highly publicized jabs at the police along the way. These  taunts included an article in the online publication Vice Magazine titled, We Are With John McAfee Right Now, Suckers. The story featured a picture of McAfee on the lam at an undisclosed jungle location.

The photo was arresting thanks to metadata!

Within hours of his photo being posted online, authorities homed in on McAfee’s precise location — in Guatemala — because the magazine forgot to remove the picture’s embedded GPS metadata. When photographer Robert King snapped the photo on his iPhone, the device imprinted it with the coordinates of a pool-side restaurant at the Parque Nacional Rio Dulce. While McAfee sipped cool drinks and basked in the jungle paradise, Guatemalan police moved in for the arrest.

Metadata in pictures could mean trouble for you, too.

Metadata is simply data that tells more about other data. In the case of photographs, metadata embedded in an image is called EXIF data. This EXIF data can include details like the kind of camera used, a time stamp for the photograph, and GPS coordinates of the place where the photo was taken. These location coordinates (“geotags”) can often be viewed by simply right clicking on a photograph and examining its properties.

Photo editing software can reveal EXIF data, and several online services, like EXIFdata.com, will help you see it.  (Check out the EXIF GPS coordinates in the picture to the right.) Anyone with access to Google can then use embedded geotag GPS coordinates to pinpoint the location where a picture was taken to within a few feet. You can find excellent information about this at a site called I Can Stalk U.

Thieves and other malicious folks of all stripes sometimes seek out this data to learn people’s home addresses and their habits. Share a photo of valuable possessions without scrubbing the metadata first, and you could lead a burglar right to your front door.

Smile for the camera (but do it safely)

Here are some helpful hints to avoid being tracked and traced by the data in your photos.

  • Disable GPS photo tagging on your devices.
    Check the manual or search online for instruction for how to turn off “geotagging” for your particular device.
  • Scrub images before posting them online.
    Some services hide your photo metadata from the public, but they could be collecting your data for their own purposes. So always remove EXIF data you don’t want to share before uploading. You may be able to alter the image properties by right-clicking the image, or you can use online services or applications to remove the information for you.
  • Think twice before letting people take photos of you, your family, or your possessions.
    If you don’t know the photographer or don’t trust that he or she can or will protect your image privacy, decline the photo, unless you’re okay with your location being broadcast along with it. (This also holds for well-meaning friends and family who simply don’t know any better.)
  • Whenever someone pulls out a camera, use this as a teachable moment to explain geotagging, then help them disable the feature.
    We’ve yet to find a single person who does not react with surprise and indignation to discover their photos are ratting out their location. Most people are eager to turn the feature off once you show them how.
  • Ask device manufacturers to ship devices with photo geotagging turned off by default.
    Since most people don’t even know the geotagging “feature” is there, they don’t know to turn it off. People who want geotagging should have to turn it on manually, and device manufacturers should leave it off for the rest of us.

So whatever happened to John McAfee? Did he get the message?

We think so.  We found no GPS coordinates in recent authorized photos of him.

Mr. McAfee’s profile is about to be boosted yet higher, since his colorful escapades are reportedly being made into a movie. His twisting plot thickened further after his arrest. While in Guatemalan custody, he reportedly faked a heart attack to avoid extradition to Belize, then somehow made it to U.S. soil and freedom. He has since taken up residence in Canada, where his adventures continue.

Wherever he finally winds up, we bet the next time he smiles for a camera, he’ll insist on tweaking its settings first. 😉

Photo credits: maxxyustas/Bigstock.com, Robert King/Vice.com, Google maps, Flickr user DanieVDM

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