What is Geo-Tagging? Securing Yourself, Your Family and Your Assets

By James Nelson ·

The threat: Providing your location or other logistical information to attackers can make you, your family or your possessions a target of opportunity – placing your family’s personal security and safety at risk.

Most people know to list their cell phone instead of their home phone number on classified advertisements in the paper because landlines can be easily tracked to the service address. Most people know to blur the license plate on that classic hotrod that’s for sale before putting pictures in the paper because the plates can be looked up and used to find the car.

There are behaviors in this high-tech age that were initially thought to be harmless, but which turn out to be quite risky. We’ve all seen it before:

  • The acquaintance who tweets every time he goes to the store for 20 minutes.
  • The “brilliant” fellow at the airport who’s telling all of his Facebook friends (and probably the world) they are leaving town.
  • The jogger who takes the exact same route every day and tweets every time while leaving home
  • The co-worker who tells everyone and her brother’s friend’s uncle that she is going somewhere she is excited about on vacation tomorrow and will be gone for two weeks.
  • The phone geek who posts every picture he takes with his camera phone, including GPS information, to the web – sometimes even in real-time

Wait a minute … that last part with the GPS information. That one is worth exploring.

We are all aware that the above examples describe information that can be used for any number of less than legal or ethical purposes with alarming success.

Let’s explore the location information further and understand the threat. The location information, sometimes called “Geo-tagging” or “Geo-Tags,” is inserted into the image file. It is simply an image property or metadata. Post the image with this embedded data to the web, and it will give away some important bits of information, such as the date/time stamp on the image file (when the photo was taken) and the exact location within a few feet of where the photo was taken. (OUCH!)

Take a picture with your smartphone of your high-dollar classic Mustang that’s for sale in front of your storage shed and post it to Craigslist for sale, and your Mustang could be stolen before it’s sold!

The problem is becoming widespread. Some readers have probably seen articles on the news like this one.

http://www.nbcactionnews.com/dpp/news/local_news/investigations/smartphone-picture-uploads-can-reveal-the-location-of-your-children%27s-home%2C-school%2C-and-play-areas

In the case of the iPhone, if you pay close attention to this article, they even tell you how to fix it. For everyone else, some links are quickly given, but you’re left wondering. (Especially Windows Mobile Users!)

Here’s how to turn off Geo-Location tagging (geo-tagging) on the camera apps for many popular smartphone platforms:

iPhones with IOS 4 and later (See also http://icanstalku.com for similar instructions with pictures.):

Starting with iOS version 4, Apple made turning off location services on a per-application basis simple and easy. Go to Settings -> General -> Location Services. Set the applications that are allowed to access the GPS services on the device with care or, if you wish, disable it entirely.

iPhones with IOS 3 and earlier (See also http://icanstalku.com for similar instructions with pictures.):

IOS 3.x and earlier also have two ways to disable Geo-Tagging photos, but unfortunately it’s not as easy to use as it is on iOS 4 and later. (Consider updating your iOS.)

One option is to disable all location services. This can be accomplished by going into Settings -> General, then sliding the “Location Services” to the “off” position. (Warning: This disables ALL location services for ALL applications – so say goodbye to your navigation app!)

The other option involves blowing the phone’s location warnings and configuring the location services use on “first use” of the applications again. Go to Settings-> General -> Reset — BE SURE TO SELECT “Reset Location Warnings” or run the risk of losing everything on your phone. Choose with care!

Resetting the location warnings to the default on iOS 3.x generally causes the preference to be “Ask on first use,” thus allowing the newly aware user to select “Don’t Allow” for certain applications such as the camera app to ensure it will not geo-tag photos.

Android (See also http://icanstalku.com for similar instructions with pictures.):

Turning off location services on a per-application basis on Android/Droid phones is not an easy/simple task. There are tools available to do it, but they can cause other issues.

To disable location services entirely:

Press the Menu key, select Settings. Press Location and Security. By default, GPS is on. Uncheck it to turn it off. (Like the iPhone, this breaks navigation apps and other legitimate uses.)

To disable location services for the camera only: Start the camera application. There is a menu that slides out on the left side of the camera app. Go into this menu and set the “Store Location” to “off” to prevent the application from geo-tagging images.

Palm WebOS (See also http://icanstalku.com for similar instructions with pictures.):

On Palm, it is fairly easy to stop applications from accessing GPS information without your knowledge/permission. Go into the “Location Services” configuration screen. There are three options – “Auto Location,” “Geotag Photos” and “Background Data Collection.” To only disable geo-tags on photos, set the “Geotag Photos” option to off. Note: If “Auto Location” is off, “Geotag Photos” will not be displayed. With either setting, the camera application will no longer geo tag photos. With “Auto Location” off, the Palm will prompt any time an application requests location data from the GPS. Although handy, now it’s just a matter of making good decisions about who is told where you are.

Windows Mobile (as of WM 6 / 6.5)

Settings -> Location. Set the Location Service Settings to “off.” Note: This will cause navigation applications and other apps dependent upon location information to no longer function. Recommendation: Keep it turned off unless you are using navigation.

Blackberry (See also http://icanstalku.com for similar instructions with pictures.):

There are three approaches to blocking geo-tag information on photos on Blackberry devices:

Option 1: Select Options, Advanced Options, GPS, press Menu key, Select Disable GPS and select Yes to confirm. This will disable all GPS capabilities on the phone.

Option 2: Select Options, Security, Applications Permissions, menu select Edit on the application, Expand Connections, Change Location (GPS) to "Deny," or disable within the application. Note: Most apps will default everything to "allow" for application permissions and ignore settings selected during setup. Always double-check your settings!

Option 3: From the home screen, click the "Camera" icon, then press the Menu button and choose "Options." Set "Geotagging" to "Disabled" then save the updated settings.  

CAUTION: Do not forget to go back and remove the geo-tags from the photos you’ve already posted online. Depending on where you’ve posted it you may be able to remove the tags without deleting the file and re-uploading it. (Picasa provides this support, for example.)

More Information: Here are some links that contain more information about geo-tags and removal: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geotagging GeoTag Removal - Free tool: http://owl.phy.queensu.ca/~phil/exiftool/ GeoTag Removal - Paid tool: http://www.geotagsecurity.com/ GeoTag Removal - Paid tool how-to: http://www.groovypost.com/howto/howto/clear-geotag-location-delete-metadata-photos/ Picasa How-to: http://support.google.com/picasa/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=43899 Remember that even with geo tags turned off, things like physical surroundings can still pinpoint the location. Before posting photos, stop and think about what’s in the photo and how that information could place you and your loved ones at risk!

Credits: Some portions of the disable geo-tagging instructions were compiled with the help of information published at http://icanstalku.com/. Tagging function removal instructions for other platforms, except Windows Mobile, were also validated with information on this site.

Credit for initially building awareness to geo-tagging risks belongs to http://icanstalku.com.

Credit for the news story referenced belongs to http://www.nbcactionnews.com