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Geo-Tagging: Convenience Can be Dangerous

There has been a lot of talk about the dangers of geo-tagging lately. The explosion of the Smartphone market has caused the atomic bomb of location-based services, which use geo-tagging as a key feature in their applications. If you use Foursquare, Facebook Places, Gowalla, or Twitpic on your mobile, (Hosted Exchange for mobile is safe from this, by the way!) unless your geo-locator is turned off, the applications will automatically add geo-tags to the places you check-in to and the pictures you upload, specifying your exact location. That’s information you wouldn’t want in the hands of criminals.

How It Works

Basically, geo-tagging gives the longitude and latitude of your location. The coordinates don’t just appear with the picture, but it’s very simple to get them running a number of free programs that can read images, and even audio and video metadata (data within data) to pinpoint your location.

Smartphones and newer digital cameras come equipped with the geo-tagging feature. Great if you went on a trip and can now recover information about the city and place you were at when the photograph was taken. Not so great when strangers can too.

The United States Army has even been trying to raise awareness among soldiers not to use location-based social networking services. Considering they are deployed all over the world, some locations are classified and publishing photos of classified locations can be detrimental to mission success.

ICanStalkU

Scientists at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) in Berkley, California and a handful of Web security analysts have been warning the public about why geo-tagging can be dangerous.

To make their point the ICSI scientists developed a simple software program capable of identifying YouTube videos shot in proximity to their institute, tagged with words like “home”. In some cases the location data embedded in the videos was precise enough to identify the house where the videos were shot.

ICanStalkU.com is a website which has been designed specifically to raise awareness of the privacy risks of geo-tagged images. The creators, Ben Jackson and Larry Pesce created a software tool that searches location data in images shared on Twitter, then produces a stream of messages in real-time that say “ICanStalkU was able to stalk [@Twitteruser]” then provides a Google Maps link to the user’s exact coordinates, which you can then view in Streetview. Pretty scary stuff. Now I know where Jo_Jo Fo Sho lives and a host of other unknowing Twitterters using Twitpic.

While these programs and websites would appear to actually facilitate a criminal’s job, what they really do is highlight just how simple it is to find and track people that aren’t aware of their technology’s full potential.

Here are 3 cases of people who got a geo-tagging wake-up call:

Carri Bugbee

Carri Bugbee is about as social as you get in the digital world. She is a social media marketing strategist, speaker & instructor and award-winning tweeter with over 9,000 followers on Twitter.

But social media gave her the scare of her life when she checked into a restaurant on Foursquare. Foursquare, which allows members to note their locations with their mobile to find out where friends are, posted her location. Moments later, the hostess came up to her to tell her she had a call on the restaurant telephone.

Confused, she answered the phone but did not recognize the male voice on the other end. Without so much as an introduction he told her she shouldn’t use Foursquare because if she did, certain people might find out where she lived.

She laughed his comment off diffidently but this only angered the creepy caller. “You stupid bitch,” he said to her and went off on a string of insults. She quickly hung up the phone.

Bugbee slept with the lights on that night. The next day, she quit Foursquare and hired a house sitter. Later it was discovered that the caller had tracked her down through a website called PleaseRobMe.com. Like ICanStalkU, the website was designed to warn people about the risks of geo-tagging, however the site was shut down after other incidents like Bugbee’s.

MythBuster’s Adam Savage

The host of the popular science program MythBusters shared a picture on Twitter of his new Toyota Land Cruiser parked in front of his house with a comment saying “Now it’s off to work in my beast […]”. Though Savage had not stated where he lived the coordinates of his home were linked to the picture. Moreover, his comment mentioned that he wasn’t home, greatly increasing his chances of getting robbed.

Well-known personalities should be especially concerned with the dangers of geo-tagging as they are prime targets for robbery and stalking.

Oregon Couple Nearly Robbed

Todd Clark, an Oregon Real Estate expert says one of his past buyers almost got robbed because they didn’t realize that every picture they uploaded with their iPhone was geotagged. Someone following the couple on Twitter looked at their pictures and figured out exactly where they lived by the pictures from inside their home. Luckily a neighbor alerted the police when they saw something unusual going on and when the couple got home only a window was damaged.

Now, some insurance companies are starting to ask customers to disclose all social media accounts upon enrollment. If a customer, who posts on social media that they are away when their home is robbed, then the insurance policy may not cover such losses.

How to Disable the Geo-Tagging Function

To disable the function, the ICanStalkU website provides full details for how to disable the function on all types of Smartphones.

Lesson for all: Watch what you post!

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