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The potential dangers of ‘geotagging’ on your mobile device

|  April 28, 2014

Geotagging” is a process that automatically adds geographical metadata to photos and other media created on a mobile or other device. Metadata is really just data about data. It’s often embedded in files we create such as documents, JPG files, videos and spreadsheets. Its hidden functionality is to permit users to collect data streams on everything from software versions to creation timelines to global positioning satellite (GPS) locations.

GPS functionality is common in today’s smartphones, but most of us don’t take the time to see how that functionality might be invading our everyday privacy. JPG metadata is typically quite extensive. The data recorded from smartphones on every photo and video includes details of file size, light source, aperture speed, lens type, device type and geographical location. It often also includes the device name you assigned when activating the unit. For example, mine shows up as “Dean’s Phone” — but many people tag their devices with their full first and last names or their company names.

The great benefit from geotagging is any photo can be tracked to its author and location. That means if you’re at a client’s location and take a picture of a problem situation, and you send it to several co-workers for advice, the co-workers could simply “right click” the picture. That simple click will permit each user to get the exact location — sometimes even the detail of its whereabouts within the location itself.

This is great if the photo will only be shared among your staff. But let’s say one of your staff finds the situation funny and forwards the photo to a friend. We all know what happens to digital pictures — they end up all over the Internet. Along with the image, then, the information of you and your client is streamed extensively.

I’m sure your clients would prefer their locations not become a billboard for cockroach infestations. So how do we protect ourselves and our clients against the accidental disclosure of information? The key to protecting yourself from the dangers of geotagging is knowing when to have the functions turned on, and when to have them turned off.

The following are some simple instructions to disable geotagging for most-common “smart” devices:

  • If using an iPhone, disable it through the “Settings” page of the geotagging program. Tap “Settings,” then “General,” then “Location Services.” Disable the applications that use GPS data. For older iPhones, tap “Reset Location Warnings” under “Reset” to cause the phone to prompt you about using geolocations when using the relevant applications. If you have a hard time remembering to disable the geolocating features of your iPhone, consider leaving them off permanently.
  • On a Blackberry, go to the camera icon. Press the “Menu” button, select “Options” and set the geotagging option to “Disabled.” Click “Save.”
  • On an Android, start the camera application. Open the menu to the left and go to “Settings.” Turn off “Geotagging” or “Location storage” (the name depends on the version of Android you own).

If you’re diligent about monitoring your geotagging and ensuring appropriate usage, it can be a great function. If you’re like me and can’t remember to turn the function off before you shoot that perfect shot in a not-so-perfect location, then be wise and permanently disable this feature. pmp

You can reach Stanbridge, a PMP and longtime technology columnist, at dean@directlinesales.com

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