Photo Privacy : Beware Before You Share


POSTED ON SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 2011 AT 9:38 AM

Online privacy is a huge concern these days. With one slip of the finger, mouse or trackpad, you could get yourself into some serious trouble. For those of you with digital cameras, you need to be really careful with what you upload to the Internet. We're talking about the GPS (Global Positioning System) which is built into many of today's cameras. This includes the iPhone since recording when and where a photo was taken is one of its newest, and possibly one of its most controversial, features.

Someone who knows nothing about you (and whom you most likely don't want to share any personal information with) can learn all sorts of things about you with just a few simple clicks. Thanks to geotagging, its quite easy to find out exactly where you live, where you work, how you get there and lots more. A major security risk, indeed. If you have the time, this CNN article entitled Online Photos: Are They The New Digital Fingerprint? makes for a good read.

We'd like to show you a simple example which many of you may already be aware of (we have no doubt that this will come as a surprise to many of the less tech-savvy people out there, though). Here's a full-size original photo which was taken just a few days ago on September 16th, 2011. It wasn't taken with my iPhone, it was taken with my Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 digital camera. It's a photo of my black Mercedes-Benz SL500 — taken in a parking lot here in North Vancouver*. Wanna find out exactly which parking lot?

Not to take anything away from Windows users but being strictly an Apple guy, I'm only going to refer to Mac software in this example. Click on the above photo link (it's a large 4000 by 3000 pixel photo, weighing in at 4.7 MB, so allow enough time for it to fully load) and copy the photo onto your Macintosh desktop or laptop computer. Open the photo in Apple Preview. From the Tools menu, choose Show Inspector. A small Inspector palette will pop up.

Click the More Info button at the very top of the palette (that's the second button from the left which has a little circle with an "i" inside of it). Then click the third GPS tab below the top row of four buttons and you'll see a panel which looks something like this:

Now click the Locate button in the bottom left corner of the panel. This will launch your browser, displaying a map inside of a new browser window. Notice that the map shows you an area (a parking lot) located just across the street — slightly east — of Capilano Mall in North Vancouver. On the map, look for the green arrow. Double-click slightly to the left or to the right of the green arrow and keep double-clicking until the map zooms in as far as it can go.

How about that? That's almost exactly where I was standing with my camera at around noon on Friday September 16th, 2011 — just under forty feet away from the green arrow you see on the map. There were only three satellites used in determining the location of this particular photo. The number of satellites depends upon how long the camera has been on as well as many other factors (some of my other photos which use six satellites are accurate to within less than ten feet). Damn those bloody satellites! Sputnik, take a hike.

Now go back into Apple Preview once again. In the More Info panel, click the Exif tab located directly to the left of the GPS tab (Exif stands for Exchangeable image file format). Using the scroll bar on the right, scroll down to the very bottom of the panel where you see ImageStabilization. Directly below this entry, you would normally see the serial number of my camera. This would be ideal information for a "technical support inquiry" from the so-called "owner" of the camera, don't you think? With just this serial number alone, it probably wouldn't take long to persuade a customer service representative to "confirm" your home address and telephone number for you — do you see where I'm going here?

The reason the serial number for my camera is missing is because I edited the Metadata entry before uploading the photo — something we do with all of our original, un-optimized photos here at MW Web Design (this prevents the serial number from showing up in Apple Preview although other applications will display a fictitious one). Just note that it's not a good idea substituting someone else's home for your own if, for some reason, you have to edit any GPS data (an apartment or townhouse complex with dozens of doors to knock on instead of just one might be a better choice if you insist on doing this)! Your best option is to completely delete all of the Metadata from your photos before sharing them.

If you do a bit of searching around on the Internet, you'll find a few utilities which will allow you to edit, delete or completely erase Metadata from your photos (one utility we use a lot here is called ExifChanger which is available from the Mac App Store). That's just one way of solving the problem. The other way is to use an application like Adobe PhotoShop. By using the Save For Web & Devices function, you can wipe this data right out of your photos and re-size your photos while you're at it. Just pay close attention to the Metadata menu in PhotoShop's Save For Web & Devices window and be sure to choose None as shown here:

If you're looking for a real quick and economical way to eliminate sensitive data from your photos, you can simply do a Save As... from the File menu in Apple Preview and save your JPEG photos as PNG files (Exif is not supported in JPEG 2000, GIF or PNG files). This isn't the best solution, however, because you will more than likely end up with much larger, overall file sizes and unfortunately, PNG files are still not as widely supported as JPEG files depending upon the exact application they're being used for.

One important note here — most people (hopefully) wouldn't want to share a huge, 4.7 MB photo without re-sizing the photo first. Keep in mind that all digital cameras have different picture size options. Even if you were to set your camera to take the smallest photo size possible which is typically, a 640 by 480 pixel photo (ideal for sharing), Metadata is still included in the photo. If your camera is equipped with a GPS chip, GPS information will be still be included in this Metadata, too (to be politically correct, GPS data is actually stored in the Exif header of a photo).

The purpose of this article isn't to create any fear or worry. It's all about awareness — educating the general public about yet another one of the many online security precautions we all need to pay attention to. Next time you decide to upload photos to the Internet, remember this article. And note that no part of this article was written to serve as a "how to" since the majority of the general public more than likely knows how to do this. It's not the knowledge we're concerned with but rather, how this knowledge can be used when it's in the wrong hands.

Everything's so incredibly connected in this day and age. It makes you wonder what information gets sent through the wire every time you pop a DVD into your new Internet-connected Blu-ray Disc Player or when you watch the Three Stooges Marathon on PBS through that Cable Converter sitting below your television.

Is big brother watching? Yes, it appears as though he is.

* Just kidding! It's actually my friend's Mercedes-Benz SL500. Posting a photo of my banged up old four-door 1959 Pontiac Strato Chief would have been a little too embarrassing.

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