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Cell Phone Photos Privacy Risk Warning

Circulating message warns that cell phone photographs posted online contain information that can allow strangers to identify the location where the pictures were taken. The message contains a TV news video that discusses the issue.

Cell Phone Camera Privacy Warning

© Santos

Brief Analysis
The warning contains factual information that is worth heeding, but is nevertheless somewhat overblown. If GPS is enabled on the phone, geolocation data may indeed be included in the EXIF metadata that accompanies an image taken with the phone's camera. If the image is then uploaded to some websites, a viewer could use software to read the image's metadata and see the location where the photograph was taken. However, Facebook, Twitter and many other social networks now automatically remove metadata from images that are uploaded, thereby eliminating the potential problem on those networks. The news video in the message is several years old and is now quite outdated. Nevertheless, as a precaution, you can easily configure your phone so that GPS is disabled for your camera, thereby eliminating any potential risk.

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Cell Phone Photos Privacy Risk

'Warning' If you, your kids, friends or loved ones take pictures from their smart phone, watch this video!!! This is truly terrifying information, so please take the time to watch the entire video. Then pass this information onto anyone who you know takes pictures with their smart phone and then posts them online.

Read more

"Warning" If you, your kids or grand kids take pics from your phone - WATCH THIS!

This is truly alarming – please take the time to watch. At the end they'll tell you how to set your phone so you don't run this risk!

Detailed Analysis

A message currently going viral on Facebook and other social media sites warns users that photographs taken with your phone may contain information that identifies where the photograph was taken, thereby posing a significant safety risk, especially when uploading images of children.  The message includes a news video that discusses the issue in detail. The message asks users to pass on the warning to others so that they will be aware of the potential risk when taking pictures with their cell phones.

The information in the warning is true in the sense that GPS enabled smart phones can indeed include the location where a photograph was taken as part of the image's Exchangeable Image File Format (EXIF) metadata. This metadata contains information about the date the image was taken, what device it was taken on, and the camera settings used. And, if the phone has GPS switched on, geolocation data may also be included in this metadata.

Thus, people could use readily available software to view the metadata of downloaded photographs, and potentially identify where the picture was taken. As the video warns, this information could potentially allow predators to find out where a pictured child lives, goes to school and plays. Obviously, this is of significant concern.

However, what the rather breathless warning fails to reveal is that Facebook, Twitter and many other social media sites do not allow users to see the metadata included with images uploaded to their networks. Facebook Help notes:
When someone downloads your photo from Facebook, they won't be able to see any of the photo's metadata.

Twitter help explains:

We remove the Exif data upon upload. It is not available to those who view your photo on Twitter.
Thus, the potential danger is virtually eliminated for people posting images on Facebook and Twitter.

A problem with the warning is that it is very much out of date.  The news footage is several years old.  As noted, sites such as Facebook strip metadata from uploaded images, so the danger described is not quite as dire as portrayed in the old news footage.

Nevertheless, people who put their cell phone images online do need to be aware of the issue. Some social networks such as Google+ and photosharing sites such as flickr do retain metadata, including geolocation data with uploaded images. The information is sometimes used on photosharing sites to identify where an image was taken on a map. Most such sites will allow users to control the use of EXIF metadata.

Those concerned about potential privacy issues can quite easily disable GPS for their phone cameras via the smart phone's settings.

And, of course, users should ensure that any photographs and information that they do not wish to be publicly accessible should be appropriately protected via the social network's or photosharing site's privacy settings.

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Last updated: May 21, 2014
First published: August 14, 2013
By Brett M. Christensen
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Exchangeable image file format
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