GeoTagging: Getting a Geographic Handle

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Geotagging (also written as GeoTagging) is a technology that allows users to link a photograph, video, website, SMS message, QR code, or RSS feed to any one of several types of geospatial data. This data usually consists of latitudinal/longitudinal coordinates. It can also include altitude, bearing, distance, accuracy data, and even place names. By using a suitable search engine and entering latitude and longitude coordinates, users can gain access to all kinds of georeferenced materials, including news, websites, and other resources. Geotagging enables users to gain access to location-related information of a given picture or other media.

How was Geotagging made Possible?

Geotagging is one of the results of a technology called the Global Positioning System, commonly known as GPS, which works with a GPS chip embedded in a device, making positioning possible. GPS is comprised of a network of 21 satellites circling the earth at any given time, each one giving off signals that can be picked up by receivers on the earth. When a receiver is activated, it takes at least three signals given off by the satellites to triangulate a position. Obviously, the more signals that can be gathered, the better the positional data will be, but three signals are the minimum for good geometry of a position.

What is Geotagging?

Thanks to developments in technology, the use of GPS has not been confined to the ability to find locations for people and objects. The positional data is given by the GPS and a chip that is now installed in nearly every cell phone produced today. That’s how practically any photograph taken on such a cell phone can be georeferenced to a position on the earth’s surface and used at a later time.

Concerns about Geotagging

Just as is the case with many technologies, there is room for misuse of geotagging which would never have arisen only a few years ago. One of the most important is the issue of privacy. A recent scientific study and several demonstrative websites have brought up a discussion on the privacy implications of geotagging and has raised public attention to the subject. In particular, the automatic embedding of geotags in pictures taken with smartphones is often ignored by cell phone users. As a result, people are often not aware that the photos they publish on the Internet have been geotagged. Many celebrities reportedly gave away their home location without knowing it. According to the study, a significant number of for-sale advertisements on Craigslist, that were otherwise anonymized, contained geotags, thereby revealing the location of high-valued goods—sometimes in combination with clear hints to the absence of the person offering at certain times.

Publishing photos and other media tagged with the exact location on the Internet allows random people to track an individual’s location and correlate it with other information. Therefore, criminals could find out when homes are empty because their inhabitants posted geotagged and timestamped information about their residence. These dangers can be avoided by removing geotags before publishing photos on the Internet.

Naturally, if it can be done for property, it can also be done for children and others who we care for. Something as simple as taking a child’s picture with an iPhone and posting the picture online can result in a serious safety risk when found by the wrong person. As a result, it should be noted to remove referencing of geotagged photos or to disable geotagging when it is appropriate.

Another newly realized danger of geotagging is the location information provided to criminal gangs and poachers on the whereabouts of often endangered animals. This can effectively make tourists scouts for these poachers, so geotagging should be turned off when photographing these animals.

How to Avoid the Potential Threats

As much fun and useful as geotagging photos can be, there is that darker side which can be avoided very easily. As noted above, anyone who is stalking you or your children can use geotagging technology and you run the risk of “social surveillance by GPS.” Of course, how much of a risk this is depends largely on who you are, where you live, and the value you offer to anyone who might be watching, but it always pays to be careful. Avoiding the risks of geotagging is the greatest way to prevent trouble. Fortunately, it can be done with minimal effort.

First: Be Aware!

A huge part of preventing a problem with geotagging is simply to be aware that it is possible, especially in this time of diminished privacy. Most people aren’t even aware that whenever they snap a picture of someone or something, all of the geographic information about that picture is being gathered automatically.

It is important to point out that while not all cameras gather geographic information, many do, Some cameras, such as those with the Canon brand, do gather geotagging information in addition to shutting speeds and other technical data. As soon as these photos are posted to sites such as Yelp and Facebook, all of the positioning data that has been gathered when the picture was taken is available for use by anyone who has access to the right technology.

Second: Be warned.

It is also possible to give away your positional information by simply being careless about the information you post online. For example, if you left a post that you were leaving your house and wanted to post a picture of a beautiful rose in your yard, you have inadvertently left two dangerous facts. First: your house is unattended. Second: with the geocoding provided by the photograph, you have given thieves the location of your home.

Third: The Danger of Patterns

Another issue with geotagging is the fact that locational information can be used as a tool to be used for creating a pattern of your routine movements. By creating a pattern someone would be able to determine where you work and spend given parts of your day for the purpose of stalking and/or robbery.

Fourth: Protect your Kids

Never geotag pictures that are of children, anyone’s children.

Fifth: Your Time Off

Geotagging photos about where you spend your off hours such as parks and other play spots is great, but you might want to think twice about allowing this information out when you would rather anyone couldn’t find it.

Sixth: Geotagging a Party? Think Again

Pictures taken of a school or dorm party are great, but be cautious about posting them and allowing their positional data out.

Seventh: Disable the geotagging feature.

Virtually every phone has a geotagging feature, and when it is new it is usually activated. For this reason, you should learn how to deactivate it as soon as you get it. Fortunately, it’s simple to do. The “on and off” button is normally located under the settings page of your phone.

Eighth: Who Can See Me?

Learn who can see your geographic data. If you do allow your geotagged photos to be placed online, make sure you are aware of who can see it. The most important watchword in this case is safety! And if you are posting a picture where you have no control over who sees it, it is best if you use any one of the EXIF editors that you can find online to remove geotagging information prior to posting. It is also possible on some websites to disable the geotagging tool on the site itself. If it is, find out how to use it. Remember where geotagging might be troubling. There are times when geocoding is a great feature to have, but at other times it would be good to disable the feature.

Just as is the case with many technologies, geotagging can be fun and allow for a lot of creative things. Unfortunately, it can also be potentially dangerous. Just remember to think before you do.

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