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Tracking device

Technology | Don’t panic, but your smartphone photos have geographic tags attached

Issue: "50 years after the bomb," Sept. 21, 2013

A creepy NBC news video segment from 2010 made new rounds on Facebook recently. It explained how smartphone photos embedded with GPS coordinates could inadvertently reveal a child’s location on an internet map. “The technology allows strangers to cherry-pick from online pictures posted all over the Web and then find the home, work, or even school of that person in the pic,” the announcer warned.

Although the fear factor was exaggerated, the warning remains partially accurate. It’s true that smartphones (and some tablets) record GPS location data in digital photos, along with other attached “metadata.” This otherwise invisible data may include date, time, exposure details, search tags, or copyright info. Professional photographers consider the metadata essential for reviewing or organizing their pictures, and preventing online distribution of their work without credit.

The question is whether a stranger can use GPS metadata in an online photo to discover where it was taken. The answer is yes, but only depending on the website where you’ve uploaded your photos.

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Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all automatically erase metadata when you upload a photo—although they give you the option to publicly tag the photo’s location first. (In which case, you’re giving away your location willingly.)

Other sites leave the metadata attached, but offer the option to hide geographic information. These include Google+, Flickr, and Photobucket. For other photo-sharing sites, you should check the privacy policy. Some sites may publicly post metadata along with your photo, though it won’t be obvious since the info is embedded in the picture.

In a day when a simple Google search of your name and state of residence can instantly reveal your home address, hiding photo location data might be a futile exercise. It seems to be more of a concern if you have some reason for keeping your whereabouts secret. Journalists from Vice accidentally revealed the Guatemalan hideout of John McAfee, the eccentric founder of the antivirus company, last December after he fled a murder investigation in Belize. The publication posted an iPhone photo of him online without expunging the metadata.

If you’re worried, you can easily turn off your phone or tablet’s location tagging function. For iPhones and iPads, find the option at Settings/Privacy/Location Services. For Android devices, go to Settings/Location Services.

Facebook blues

Young adults become sadder the more they use Facebook, according to a new study in PLOS ONE. Researchers from the University of Michigan asked Facebook users in a series of online questionnaires (five per day for two weeks) how they felt and whether they were satisfied with life. The results showed that browsing Facebook predicted a subsequent decline in self-satisfaction, and the more often young adults used the social network, the less happy they felt.

Other studies have found a similar link between Facebook and negative feelings. What’s the cause? Some researchers have suggested scrolling through our friends’ profiles and status updates provokes envy. An informal poll of my own Facebook friends backs that conclusion: “You find old classmates and see their lives as ‘perfect,’ and it makes you feel bad about your own,” said one. Another added: “Facebook is like looking at a highlights reel, and then comparing it to the real thing. Comparison is the thief of joy.” —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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