There has been a warning flying around Facebook lately letting people know the act of simply posting a photo online could be revealing your personal information and even your location to would-be predators. The news report that accompanies the post is actually from 2010 and details the use of EXIF data stored in the code of photos taken with digital cameras and smartphones. And, yes, it can reveal the location a photo was taken through a geotag.
This is the same technology that allows for the use of map apps and check-ins on Facebook and FourSquare. It's essentially a GPS tracker down to the longitude and latitude of your location, which the report ominously says can locate your child's bedroom inside your house.
While the warning may be accurate, there are good reasons not to be terrified.
First, the EXIF data found in photos -- it contains everything from color balance and exposure to location data -- has been around since digital cameras hit the market. It's not uncommon and has rarely been used for tracking people. Photographers have used the data for years to help them better understand how great photos were taken, for example.
Second, you can turn it off. Phones and cameras have settings that allow the user to turn off GPS tracking on the phone. Most people don't because doing so can also disable helpful apps like maps and the like. But there is a setting for disabling it if you are particularly concerned.
Third, one of the benefits of giving up privacy online through photos and Facebook posts is that the sheer volume of information renders you virtually invisible. Choosing a person at random from the Internet is exponentially more random than flipping open the phone book for a major city and dropping a pin on someone's name.
The problem with these types of reports is that they play on the fears of people who aren't often technologically savvy. Just as we are terrified by bomb threats and plane crashes, we are far more likely to fall and die in our bathtub than we are to be blown up by a terrorist or suffer a fatal plane crash.
It's the rarity of the circumstance and the sensational nature of the event that make it so frightening and, as a result, so tantalizing to media.
This isn't to say you shouldn't be careful, but doing so means having some knowledge of the technology you use every day and being able to assess the real and imagined threats, allowing you to act accordingly.
So, yes, your data is all over the Internet and will remain there probably forever. But, no, you aren't likely to be the victim of an online predator any more than you are likely to be struck by lightning. It sounds scarier than it really is.
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