Last week, shortly after an inspiring CrytoParty I went to in Providence, I finally found time to play around with some EXIF data in my smartphone’s photo gallery. Here’s a hastily-written Facebook post I made about it:
“Today I’m playing around with phone privacy. Most phone cameras embed some metadata into the pictures they take–notably, if you take a picture with location on, your location information will be encoded into that picture!
I turned this setting off a while back, but recently turned it back on for the sake of experiment and I noticed that when I add certain photos to Instagram, the app predicts a location for me regardless of whether I have location on at the moment or not. For example, I took this pic of Sarah a few weeks ago in the Providence Public Library. Now I’m sitting in a cafe downtown with location turned off, but Instagram can tell where my picture was taken, down to the intersection (Trinity Rep is across the street!).
Putting information like that online can be hazardous, esp if you’re vulnerable to stalking or doxxing! Take note! Gonna post some info on how to turn these settings off soon.”
Here’s a quick follow-up on that: first, it’s pretty easy to view this metadata (called EXIF data, for EXchangeable Image File). You can do it by opening your photo with photo editing software like Lightroom, but it’ll also show up right in your system’s photo viewer. I was able to see the location of the photo I took both in Windows Photo Viewer on my laptop (right-click > File Info) and in my Android phone’s gallery (More > Details). From there you can see the exact coordinates of where the photo was taken or, if your device is new enough, a little interactive map.
You can remove location metadata from your photos pretty easily with photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom or Gimp. You can also do it through Windows Explorer or a mobile app (see here for a guide, I won’t reinvent the wheel). But I don’t really want my camera to capture my location period–I’d rather not let Facebook know exactly where the Planned Parenthood I use is or whatever–so I just turned off the location-saving setting on my phone camera. This is a pretty good guide for that. You can always turn that setting back on if you want to use it.
A side note: I’ve been working on a little project related to this post, now that I have some more free time. It’s going to be a zine with basic privacy tips for student activists. I guess I’m hoping to fill in some of the gaps in privacy knowledge that were hard for me to fill in at first. (There are some other privacy guides out there, but I think sometimes the writers consider stuff like this to be too “obvious” to mention, especially if they already have a background in computers, which many of my activist friends don’t.)
And another side note: I only realized that cameras automatically store metadata by listening to the Reply All episode about hacker Higinio Ochoa, but when I started Googling about it I realized that I’d actually seen it before! In college I had a job digitizing old books and manuscripts for my campus library, and we always added metadata like locations, dates, details about library collections and so on to all our images. My point is that this data can be really useful in archiving work, or for adding context and attribution to an artist’s work. Metadata isn’t bad! But it’s not useful, and can often be harmful, if you don’t know about it.
P.P.P.S. I love saying “in college” as if I am not a tiny child just emerging from the womb of academia