Smartphone picture privacy video stirs up paranoia about online safety

Tori Floyd

A 3-year-old news report explaining the risks posed by data saved in photos online has found a sudden renewed popularity. In light of recent privacy issues highlighted by the Edward Snowden NSA leaks, the video, however fear-mongering it may be, still holds some basic truths about the files we share on the Internet.

In 2010, before “smartphone privacy” barely registered as a popular search term, a Kansas City news station ran this segment on how smartphone photos could tell others your exact physical location at the time the image was taken:

Despite its age, the video found a sudden surge in popularity today, garnering an additional one million views on YouTube over August 12 and 13. International Business Times attributes the sudden jump in popularity to the information released by Snowden, alleging that the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S. collected the phone records of millions of Americans. While the story is now about two months old, the ongoing saga of Snowden’s residency in Russia has kept it top of mind for those who are now fearful that Big Brother is checking everything that goes through their phone. As a result, the video has been shared around via social media and emails today, attracting much attention to an issue that existed three years ago.

[ Related: Android users finally get feature long used by Apple users: tracking a lost phone ]

And the truth is, that issue does still exist today. While the level of paranoia stirred by KSHB Action News is being called alarmist by many, it’s largely because the information in the story is something that anyone who uses a smartphone today should probably already know.

When you take a photo with your smartphone, it creates an EXIF file, which contains the metadata for that photo. This includes information like what device the photo was taken on, and where that photo was taken, if the information is available. When you upload that image online, it may retain the data, depending on where you’ve uploaded it.

Many social networks use the location data (known as a geotag) as an added feature, like on Facebook which uses the data to automatically tag the location of the image. Because geotags are based on latitude and longitude, you can get exact locations, like the house or restaurant a person was in when the photo was taken. Coupled with anecdotal information from the photo itself, and as the video shows, you can track down the location of someone’s bedroom.

Other sites like Flickr can optionally retain all EXIF data, as it can provide useful information to photographers like the camera or lens being used.

If you don’t want your photos to be geotagged, you can go into your phone’s settings and turn off the location feature for the smartphone’s camera. Some digital cameras come with a geotagging feature, and it’s best to refer to the camera’s manual to understand how this feature works and when it is used.

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