I got a new iPhone 4 for my birthday last October. I bought it for myself. One of the really cool things about the iPhone 4 is the quality of the photos that the built-in camera is capable of taking. It has spawned several websites where photogs are publishing their photos showing how cool an iPhone is. I can get into that. For the first time in 52 years I consider myself trendy. It’s kind of nice to be trendy.
There is, however, a dark side to the publishing of our lives in photo-documentary form on social networking sites. The well publicized downside is that anyone is capable of finding, viewing and downloading the pictures. But, it’s not just the pictures which can be damaging to people (dancing with that lampshade on your head in your underwear at the Christmas party), but the hidden information that is contained in the photo’s EXIF metadata information that can have really serious consequences.
The iPhone records lots of specific information about the picture when it is taken. The really dangerous information is the GPS location of where the photo was taken along with the time it was taken. It is this geotagging that is the real snake in paradise as far as this camera phone is concerned, especially for people who are in the habit of documenting their daily lives on social networking sites.
Let’s look at an example:
Here is a screen capture of an iPhone photo I took at my birthday party (of my birthday dinner). I have for example purposes imported it into a popular social networking site, Flickr (while I have an account, I rarely use Flickr, so don’t go looking for more of these 😉 ).
The EXIF metadata is written as a header file for each digital photo. Often times the camera will write basic information about the image, such as the ISO, shutter speed, aperture, date etc. When a camera is equipped with a GPS, such as smart phones are, there exists the potential to write the GPS location coordinates into the file into the reserved space of the EXIF format for latitude and longitude coordinates.
With this file sitting on a publicly accessible URL, there are many very easy ways to get all of the EXIF information for any photo you can find on the internet.
You only need to do some rudimentary searching on Google to locate websites that can read any image on the web. One such site is www.findexif.com . When I point this site at the above photo on Flickr, it gives me the following goldmine of information about the picture, all hidden in the EXIF header.
If you look closely, you can see that, among other information, the latitude and longitude of where the photo was taken is recorded!
Now, while the information from a picture of my dinner is rather uninformative to the average cyber-stalker, were I to make a habit of documenting my existence with my iPhone and publishing it to social sites, an interested individual can get this kind of information about my particular movements from the 73 iPhone images I have taken thus far (though I do not publish these photos on the internet, so if you are my personal stalker, sorry to disappoint you.)
The above image was created by loading the iPhone photos I have taken into a program that can read this EXIF data and post it onto a map (this particular functionality is available here in Aperture 3.1, but is also available in many other programs, such as Photoshop Elements). It is at this point that the creepy factor starts to become more apparent. Had these images been sitting on a social networking site and been downloaded by a person interested in learning about my movements, habits, the people I hang around with etc., simply by downloading and accessing the geotagging information in the EXIF header they can learn a lot about a me. If I had a habit of taking lots of photos of myself, my children, my prized possessions around my home, an interested person could become a real threat to my personal security and that of my family.
Now, not every smart phone records this information. I tested some photos I took with my old Blackberry and it doesn’t geotag the images the camera takes. I don’t even know which smart phones do this. I do know that the iPhone does. In addition, some regular cameras also have a built in gps and geotag photos, though at this moment, there are not too many of those. Digital SLR’s have, for the most part, not incorporated this technology. It is relatively easy to find out how much information you are putting out there. Just do as I did above and examine some of your publicly posted images at sites like www.findexif.com.
This is not evil technology and there is no need for me to be paranoid about it. I just have to be careful about what I post to the internet for my own personal security. Experts have been saying this for many years. I publish this as a specific example of how something perceived as being trendy and relatively innocent can be used by unscrupulous individuals. Being forewarned is being forearmed. So now you know.
It would be really beneficial if the iPhone had a switch in the settings for the camera that allowed you to shut off the geotagging, and…you can! You just go into the iPhones settings=>General Settings=>location services. There you will find a listing of all the apps that make use of the GPS information and the camera app is listed among them. Simply toggle the switch to the OFF position and your problem goes away! No more location data applied to photos.
You are welcomed to comment below, but if this thread starts to become an Apple or iPhone bashing forum I will shut it down fast. So please be polite.