There’s a video on YouTube that has been getting a lot of attention lately. A few of my clients have sent me the link to watch it, because it seems to fit right in line with the kinds of topics I cover here in this blog and on my podcast; specifically, privacy and security.
I actually saw this video quite a while ago. It was published on YouTube in the summer of 2013. And to be honest, when I first watched it, my reaction was similar to the way a lot of people have reacted to it. I thought it was pretty scary! To see what I mean, here is the video for you to see for yourself:
The video is 4 1/2 minutes long, so if you don’t want to watch it, here is basically what’s on it. The guy went to a couple of public places and took some outdoor pictures with his phone. Then he went home and put those pictures on his computer, and opened them with a program called Irfanview. Inside Irfanview, when you click on a particular menu item, it pops right up with the latitude and longitude of exactly where the photos were taken. And in fact, there is a link to Google Maps where you can zoom right in and see the bush that was in one of the pictures.
The guy that made the video is using it to illustrate the idea that you need to be very careful about the pictures you post on the internet. For example, if you take a picture of your kids playing in the yard, and you post it on Facebook, then anyone with this free software could download the picture, check the coordinates, and see exactly where that picture was taken. This means that your location would no longer be private.
And aside from privacy issues for your family, there is the security concern. You could take a picture of your new Mac laptop (what do those cost now, about $12,000?) to show your friends on Twitter. But that means you have unknowingly just told all the criminals of the world that there’s a nice expensive laptop at this specific location – just break in and take it.
After watching the video, I began doing my own investigation. If I was going to write about this and warn you about the dangers involved, I would have to see it for myself on my own computer.
I already had the program mentioned in the video (Irfanview). I don’t use it very often because I have other image software, but it was already installed on my computer. I just had to find some pictures to try it out.
So I went to Facebook. As you probably know, there are more pictures on Facebook than you could ever look at, so I figured it would be easy to find some there. I downloaded several images from a few different friends’ Facebook profiles. Not images that they had gotten somewhere else and “shared”, but actual family pictures that I knew they had taken personally.
Then I ran the Irfanview program and opened one of the pictures to check it out. When I went to the place where it was supposed to show the location where the picture was taken, there was no information. Hmm… interesting. So I opened another Facebook picture. Same results. In fact, every one of the pictures I downloaded from Facebook showed the same thing – no details about where the picture was taken.
Can you guess why there was no location information in the picture files from Facebook?
It’s because when you upload a picture, Facebook strips out that information as part of the posting process. So you could investigate all of your Facebook friends’ pictures, and none of them will have the details about where the picture was taken.
So I figured, all right – that’s just Facebook. There are other websites that allow you to post pictures, so I’ll find some pictures there and check them out. I checked on these websites that allow posting of photos:
Turns out they all remove the geographical information from pictures that are posted on their websites. Maybe it’s not quite time to panic about picture privacy invasion just yet.
So I figured I would try one more thing. I would take a picture with my own phone. Obviously a picture that I take personally would not be messed with by any of those websites and their filters, and would show the actual location where I took the picture.
So I went outside and snapped a picture with my smartphone (a Samsung Galaxy Note 2). It was a clear, sunny day (this is Florida, after all) so the satellites and drones and NSA should all have had an easy view of what I was doing.
I came back in to my home office and transferred the picture to my computer, and opened it with Irfanview for examination. I looked for the geographical data and found – nothing! There was not a single thing showing where that picture was taken.
That’s because my phone had the “geotagging” feature turned off already. I didn’t turn it off (or don’t remember doing so anyway) so I believe it was turned off by default. I did a little bit of checking around, and it seems that most (if not all) smartphones turn this off by default.
(To confirm, I turned ON the geotagging option on my phone and took another picture. I was able to open it and see the geographical details of where the picture was taken, so that does indeed work if it is turned on. Then I just disabled it again.)
That’s why I’m not really concerned about all the red flags that were raised in that video. Technically, yes, it’s all true information – but it doesn’t seem to be a problem that is happening on a widespread basis. Like a lot of other things on the internet, it’s just another thing for people to panic about when there is really no reason to panic.
That being said, it would still be a good idea for you to check your smartphone and make sure geotagging is turned off. In Android, go to your “Camera” mode (like you’re going to take a picture) and click on the Settings icon. Then just uncheck the box that says “GPS tag”. Your Android phone might be slightly different. I don’t use an iPhone so I can’t tell you where to turn it off for that device.
There’s one fewer thing for you to worry about. Enjoy your day.