Random header image... Refresh for more!

A Facebook Urban Legend That’s Actually… True

My friend sent me one of those Snopes-worthy mass-freakout emails informing me that KILLERS COULD TELL WHERE I LIVE BY CODE EMBEDDED IN MY FACEBOOK PHOTOS!!! (Side note: why are killers always hanging out on social media sites?  Don’t they ever congregate somewhere else?)  I immediately went to the urban legend site so I could disprove the hysteria.  Except that I learned that the hysteria is actually… true.

Well, not the fact that killers are perusing your Facebook photos, but the fact that geotagging on photos has made it possible for people to see exactly where a photo was taken.  And if that picture was taken inside your kitchen… well… now they know exactly where your darling child eats pancakes every morning.

Image: Drnantu via Flickr

Image: Drnantu via Flickr

It’s an old bit of information, and I possibly remembered it inadvertently when I got my phone because I don’t have geotagging enabled, but if you have location services on your smartphone or digital camera, every picture you take is pinpointed by latitude and longitude.  Though it isn’t posted on the front of the photo like a timestamp, that information is accessible to others via an browser extension.  And you may not have known that it existed since it isn’t apparent at a glance.

You can see how it works in this old video:

How do you turn off geotagging if you don’t want people to know all the places you take photographs such as your home, school, or workplace?  Icanstalku.com has a guide for various devices.

Spending time on the Snopes site did allow me to peruse dozens of other common social media urban legends including how Facebook Open Graph is going to allow everyone to see all my postings (false), a Facebook status notification hack (undetermined), and your tweets are at the Library of Congress (true).

But back to geotagging: it’s true and it’s mostly unnecessary when it comes to your photographs — how often do you need to pinpoint the spot where the image was taken?  So turn off geotagging on your photos, and if you really want a higher level of privacy and don’t mind a little inconvenience when it comes to GPS-dependent sites such as Google Maps, turn off location services altogether.  I still use maps, and I sometimes turn on location services for a moment if we want to use turn-by-turn instructions.  But my default setting for location services is off.

We don’t have that much privacy in this world, but I can make it at least a little bit harder to know where my images were taken.

Cross-posted with BlogHer

19 comments

1 Tiara { 08.21.13 at 8:55 am }

It’s funny that you posted this today since at dinner yesterday, my Mom informed me of this potential threat…I was like, “duh, Mom!!” but I still double checked my settings just to be sure…

2 Kate (Bee In The Bonnet) { 08.21.13 at 8:55 am }

I checked mine when I saw that on FB, and I found that location services were on, but not for the default Camera app. However, they *were* on for my spiffy camera apps (Camera+, highly recommend it for photo loving peeps, and one other which I never use). I turned them off for those, though thinking about it, I don’t take many photos at home these days. And really, if someone wanted to find a kid to take, they won’t be shocked to find mine at the places where they may have been geotagged in photos (the park, the library, etc.).

3 a { 08.21.13 at 9:00 am }

We just got new phones and I turned the geotagging on for something. I’ll have to turn it off again.

4 Catwoman73 { 08.21.13 at 9:01 am }

The lack of privacy in our society of astounding. I saw this on the news recently, but have not been able to figure out how to turn off the geotagging on all our devices- thanks for posting that site, Mel! I’ll be checking it out right away.

5 Kasey { 08.21.13 at 9:12 am }

I saw so many people post total freak puts about this but I think all those freak outs posting over and over again just made it easier for the crazies to find out information to super stalk easier.

All that said I did double check my settings too.

6 Formerly known as Denver Laura { 08.21.13 at 9:30 am }

If you have a Droid, you can get some programs to deactivate geotagging before you activate your camera. You can also view the options on each picture and “scrub” the info before posting to facebook. Then there’s always the “don’t post to facebook” option. But that’s a lot like abstinence, it works in theory…

7 Tigger { 08.21.13 at 11:18 am }

I always have my location services turned off, unless I actually need it for mapping. That is pretty rare, though. I just don’t see the point in having another thing running that may or may not drain my battery, and I have no desire for everyone to know where I am at any given time.

8 kirida { 08.21.13 at 11:29 am }

I remember this issue back when one of the guys from Mythbusters took a photo and they were able to locate his apartment because geotagging was on. I turn my off all the time, but turn it on for mapping because it just sucks my battery life when a lot of location services are on.

9 Jenn { 08.21.13 at 12:47 pm }

Ick. That is so creepy!

10 JustHeather { 08.21.13 at 1:57 pm }

I’m the same as Tigger, I just don’t have the location services turned on, except for the rare occasion I want to pinpoint my place on a map. I know the GPS services eat my battery quickly, as it gives a warning that it does this as I turn it on and my fully-just-charged phone quickly goes to yellow.

11 Persnickety { 08.21.13 at 6:05 pm }

I haven’t seen this variation yet ( haven’t looked at Facebook recently), but I generally keep my geo tagging off for this reason, and the battery drainage. I have taken a bit of a step back since I read about a study where the researchers were able to make a number of accurate assumptions regarding people’s activities, sexual preference and political leanings based solely on social media posts and connections. The assumptions did not require the person involved to have made any overt statements, they just used causes their friends supported, their likes and various other metrics. Scary, at least for me. I may talk a lot on my blog, but that is well hidden, and semi anonymous. I prefer that someone trying to understand me from my FB profile works out that I am not much involved, but I have a faithful historian, in the person of my husband.

12 Jo { 08.21.13 at 6:57 pm }

Have you read this? http://tongonto.com/kidnappers-wont-find-your-babys-bedroom-from-a-facebook-photo? It basically says that while this was true when it was written, FB and other social media sites have improved their technology and they now remove this identifying information when you post to their sites. So the info is still logged in your photo, but you don’t have to worry about others gaining access to it.

13 Karen Sanders { 08.21.13 at 9:35 pm }

I turned off my location settings a long, long time ago because I’m sneaky. I don’t think people need to know I was in another county on Monday (if I happened to have posted a FB status update while en route). Then, they might think they need to know why I was at such a place in the middle of the day. Wasn’t I working? Did I lose my job? It never occurred to me until this news thing hit that someone would try to actually find me.

14 Jessie { 08.22.13 at 12:20 am }

Yeah, I keep the location stuff off on my phone too. The reason I do it, though, is to keep my data usage down and make my battery last longer.

15 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 08.22.13 at 4:04 am }

Good tip. Although I’ve been trawling through holiday photos recently and I think it might come in handy to turn this on again as I’m leaving the door with my suitcase… knowing where I used to be on holiday several weeks/months/years ago doesn’t seem all that harmful.

16 It Is What It Is { 08.22.13 at 12:04 pm }

Mel, Mel, Mel, Mel, Mel. Thank you for being my very own watchdog. Although the site didn’t have the info for disabling geotagging in my Windows 8 smart phone, Google fixed that.

17 Amy Elaine { 08.22.13 at 2:29 pm }

oh, my! thanks so much for this!!! I turned off all of my location services except for find my phone.

18 lara { 08.22.13 at 5:11 pm }

I saw this too and thought I had turned it off fully, but now I need to go check!

19 Battynurse { 08.23.13 at 12:44 am }

I sort of figured something similar out about posting where you at. Many of my friends post when they’re out to lunch, at work etc. at one point I made a “place” home is where the cats are and would check in at home (I’ve seen other friends who check in at home) and then realized one day that by clicking on that place it essentially told everyone where I lived. Even though I’d set privacy settings to friends only it seems like whenever there’s an update a lot of my stuff becomes public again.

Leave a Comment

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
The contents of this website are protected by applicable copyright laws. All rights are reserved by the author