Aug
25
2010

Location, Location, Location

Hold Steady - Almost Killed Me

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I’m starting the post with a positive jam (thanks Hold Steady).  This post might be scary to some and I figured you might want the mental reinforcement.  Ever since mobile phones became connected to the Internet, the ability of “the man” to track us has become easier and easier.  Ironically, this power was given freely by most netizens.

It’s not wiretaps, email snooping, or cell phone tracking that give them (and your grandparents) the ability to know what you are doing minute to minute, but instead twitter posts, facebook status updates, yelp/foursquare/gowalla check-ins, and something I wanted to talk about in this post – geolocation.

Geolocation for those unaware, is the adding of real world address or GPS information to a virtual object like a picture or post.  The reason I wanted to call attention to geolocation is that compared to status updates, twitter posts, etc., it often happens unknowingly or accidentally for the average user.  When you post to twitter that you are eating at such and such restaurant, you’re actively telling the world where you are.  When you post/email an interesting photo for your friends to see, you may not realize that you could give out your home address.

This is because newer cameras and most smart phones can now use their built-in GPS units to tag photos with where they were taken, including your home or anywhere you take pictures.  The problem for the average user is that the picture doesn’t appear to hold this information and so there is seemingly nothing to fear.

The location information is there, I promise

For those that know where to look though, it’s quite simple.  I took the picture above with my iPhone this summer while at the Very Large Array and as I will show you, it recorded exactly where I was standing.  Viewing the information involves something called EXIF. You can think of EXIF information as the writing on the back of the photo.  In the past, EXIF information included what type of camera took the picture, when it was taken, what the aperture of the camera was, etc., but now it can also include information like GPS coordinates.

On a Mac, the process involves opening the photo in Preview, viewing the inspector, and going to the GPS tab.  Apple conveniently put a “Locate” button that shows me on Google Maps exactly where the photo was taken.

Screenshot showing GPS information lookup

On Windows, the process almost as simple.  Just right-click the picture and click properties.  Under the “Details” tab if you scroll down, you might see a GPS section like the one pictured.  I should note that this is only for Vista and Windows 7.  Windows XP will not show the GPS section even if the photo contains one.  For XP users you can download a program called KUSO to see this information.

Example using Windows 7

Now that you’ve seen it done, it seems pretty simple. Most people have never opened the “Inspector/Properties” and thus never realized just how much data is there beyond just the picture.

You can relax slightly because common places photos are posted to: facebook, twitpic, and flickr clear out this information automatically.  While they may be removing it from public viewing, they still are able to see this information themselves and they could change their policy about sharing that information at any time, so I still recommend removing the data yourself before uploading.

When using less reputable websites, forums, or emailing attachments is when you are most vulnerable.  In these scenarios, the photo is sent unaltered and thus containing all the EXIF information.  In these cases, you will need to remove the information yourself before sending.

So how do we get rid of this information?  There are many programs, and many operating systems, so I can’t go into all the ways, but I’ll cover a couple very common scenarios for Mac and Windows.

When using iPhoto on a Mac, whenever you export a photo or share a photo, there is a little checkbox for including location information.  Just make sure the it’s unchecked and you are ready.

Exporting in iPhoto

A program called SmallImage for the Mac is another good option if you prefer to remove all EXIF information in addition to the GPS data.

For windows you can download a program called Easy EXIF Delete.  For Adobe Photoshop users, on either OS X or Windows, use the “Save for Web…” command and this will remove any extra data.

There is of course one way to avoid all of this hassle – don’t use the location services of your phone or camera.  I have an iPhone, so I can show you how to disable it on iPhone/iPod Touch devices, but for other manufacturers you’ll need to check with Google or your nearest geek.

Location Settings

On the iPhone, click Settings ->General ->Location Services. Here you can disable all location services at the top, or pick which individual applications are allowed to know where you are.  Find the Camera and slide it to “OFF” and now all your photos will be geolocation free.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but Google is your friend and I mainly wanted to bring the idea of geolocation to your attention.  There are plenty of good reasons to have your photos geotagged, but knowing when to use it, when not to use it, and how to remove it, will keep this feature from turning into a liability.

Written by John in: Photos,Ramble,Travel | Tags: , , , , , , ,

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