The bad news is that pictures taken by smartphone, iPad, any other modern tablets or some GPS-enables cameras actually contain information on where and when they were taken. And, the information is usually frighteningly accurate, allowing locate the place with a precision of a couple of yards.
I took this photo by my iPhone 5. If you save this photo on your hard drive, and check its properties, you will be able to see this:
The “GPS” section shows exactly where this photo was takes. Now you can open Google Maps and copy my then coordinates (39° 11′ 12” -78° 9′ 58.8) in the search window. If you did everything right, you are able to see that I took this photo in Winchester, VA, on the intersection of West Piccadilly and North Braddock Streets. Actually it even tells you on what side of the intersection I was when shoting it. If you scroll a little bit up, you will also see when I took the photo (at 11:59 AM on July 21, 2013) and what equipment with which version of the operating system I used (iPhone 5 with iOS 6.1.4). And all this information is accurate and correct.
Bad guys possessing your pictures may use this data as your imagination can tell you, and probably in a couple of ways more.
The good news are:
– photos post on Facebook, Twitter and most other social networks are stripped of this information. Technically, employees of those networks can see this, but an average perpetrator cannot;
– if you post your photos on other websites and send them for some reasons to the place where perpetrators may get them, you can easily remove this information by yourself. If you have Windows, try right-clicking on the picture file, select “Properties”, go to the “Detail” tab, and click “Remove properties and personal information”.
Theoretically, that should erase all location data. Sometimes Windows fails to remove GPS coordinates from the pictures. At least, my Window 7 does not remove geographical coordinates on photos taken by my iPhone 5. In this cage Google Picasa does the job perfectly, moreover it allows removing location data from multiple files at ones. In order to do this, download and install Picasa (it is free, very cool, and extremely convenient), open any file in Picasa, right-click on the file, and select “Edit in Picasa”. You will see your image library. Select necessary photo(s), and select menu “Tools” – “Geotag” – “Clear Geotags”. Done!
Depending on your profile’s settings, Facebook and other social networks can be dangerously accessible to everyone. It always makes sense to set up your privacy settings so that only your friends can see your photos and other critical information like birthday. Also, it pays to be a little bit picky when accepting friendship requests on social networks you post sensitive information.
Fear of children abducted thanks to social networks seem exaggerated. In 1999 only about 12,100 children were kidnapped in the USA. That may seem a great deal (and for families of those kidnapped it is really a great deal), but an average child has 30 times more chances to run away than to be kidnapped.
The chances of an average child to be killed by a kidnapper are 13 times less than to die in a motor accident or 2 times less than to drown in a bathtub. It is not that you should ignore the kidnapping threat. You should not, especially if you live in areas where such risks are elevated. However, there are hundreds more serious issues you have to keep in mind. Since the brain’s capacity is limited and you do not want to live the whole life worrying about minor risks, it makes sense to take some basic measures and relax.
Those basic measures related to social network and other online activity would include the following.
- Make sure you properly set up your privacy settings of your social networking profiles. Facebook lets you hide almost everything, and it is improving its interface and customization options almost every month. Click on the small lock picture on the top of the right side of your Facebook profile and make sure you protected your information as you wanted. Hide birthdays from public: remember how many times you used your birthday to be identified by a bank or insurance company you were calling. Usually, it also not advisable to disclose your birthday year even to friends on Facebook: you can hide it by going to your profile, clicking on “About” and then on the “Edit” in the “Basic Information” section.
- In Facebook, make sure your public posts, if you have any, are about public issues. Personal photos, videos and status updates are to be shown to your friends only. I would recommend you set all your posts visible to friends only by default (click on the lock on top of your screen, then in the “Who can see my stuff?” you can specify for whom future posts will be visible.
- Try not establishing friendship relations on Facebook with people you are not sure you trust. Think twice before sending a request to that nice person you met yesterday in the mall: you may trust him now, but no one knows what will happen in a year and who else will have an access to his account. The same warning can be applied to your coworkers, clients, vendors, neighbors, cellmates, etc. Ask yourself if you want to keep this person posted on your and your family’s whereabouts in five years from now. Unfriending someone may be considered an offence, so you had better think in advance. Sometimes it is not easy to decline a request, so you may end up having your boss or customers in your friend list. Facebook has a great feature for such cases: you can make any number of special lists of your friends and make your posts available for those in a particular list. It is very easy: check out the small buttons on the bottom of the post window.
- Do not post or otherwise place online pictures showing your address (on signs, envelopes, bills, etc.) or the vehicle registration plate (disclosure of car registration data is prohibited in most states, but the are some web-sites like http://publicdata.com/ that sell information of this kind for Florida, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin).
- Remove, as described above, private information from pictures sent to any private and corporate recipients. You do not need to do this if you post pictures on Facebook that removes it all by itself. Neither should you really care about this if your photos are shot by a camera without GPS: you still had better check what trace leaves your camera (for Windows users: right-click on the image file, select “Details” tab, and scroll down checking what information is contained in the file). This works for photo-printing services as well.
- Avoid posting photos that may be considered embarrassing by your children when they grow up. Apply the strictest standards you may imagine your kids will ever be able to apply. They may forgive you when they become adult but hate for these when they are teenagers.
- Most important: teach your kids to do the same. Their profiles may be the greatest online threat to their safety. They will live in much more digitized and transparent world than you ever imagine. Making those rules a basic habit may save them from a great deal of trouble in the future.