Check Your Settings: Cell Phone Pictures Are Risky Business
Posted in Computer | April 3rd, 2011
If you’re like many smartphone users, you’re posting images to Facebook,
Picasa and other social-media networks. But did you know that the photos
you upload (or even e-mail) could be putting you — and your kids — at
risk? That’s because your smartphone is equipped with technology that
can allow hackers to find out where you live.
Here’s how it works: Smartphones have geolocation technology that tags
photos with the location. Criminals can look at the information coded into
those files and find out where you live, work or play (wherever you were
when you took the picture). When the criminal zeroes in on the area
where he lives to find images of children, all he has to do is click on the
photo and select View Image Info to find out exactly where the photo was
An NBC Action News report being circulated on YouTube offers an example
in which news reporters were able to use the geolocation technology to
not only locate a child’s home, but also her bedroom, her day-care facility,
a fast-food restaurant the family frequents, and the specific area of a park
where the child plays. Although it requires a browser plug-in to fully
translate the photo information into something useful, the danger is real.
What Should You Post Online?
McAfee confirms that location services such as foursquare, Gowalia, and
Facebook Places can easily search, track and plot the whereabouts of
friends and strangers.
In just a few clicks, cybercriminals can see in real time who is tweeting,
where they are located, what they are saying, what their interests are,
and what operating systems and applications they are using. McAfee Labs
predicts that cybercriminals will increasingly use these tactics across the
most popular social-networking sites in 2011. But the ability to access
faces, not just names, is even scarier to parents.
“As the Internet becomes a mechanism for people to share increasingly
intimate details of their lives — which seems to be the case in social
networking and other sorts of sites — questions arise about what you
should [or shouldn't] share,” said Charles King, principal analyst at
PundIT. “Especially when you get into issues of geolocation, people are
not just talking about what they are doing and when they are doing it, but
exactly where they are doing it.”
The Bigger Picture
Indeed, the risks of uploading your smartphone photos to the Web are
real. However, King points out that there are greater dangers than
criminals searching for photos, then using software to translate
geolocation data into actionable information, and then actually committing
a crime based on those details.
For those worried about their children’s safety, keep in mind that most
child abductions are carried out by a family member, or someone who
knows the family member — not some random stranger or cyberstalker.
“You’ve always got to take stories from television news outlets with a
grain of salt since many seem to be more obsessed with sensationalistic
stories that touch people’s nerves than they are with reporting
accurately,” King said. “Yes, there could be a danger. But there are other,
How To Protect Yourself
In terms of reducing the risk related to the geotracing of cell phone
photos, there are simple ways you can protect yourself, your friends, and
For starters, you can change your social-networking settings to private so
only people you invite into your network can see your photos.
Unfortunately, it takes a bit of practice to find all the right settings with
Facebook and some other sites, and plenty of users forget to take the
time to check their privacy settings. Restricting privacy and information to
friends can be critically important.
Also, and perhaps most important, you can turn off the GPS (global
positioning system) settings on your smartphone’s camera to prevent it
from capturing the location information. That step is important not just in
terms of photos you upload to social networks, but also for photos you
email, since ultimately, those travel over the Web, as well.
And, last but not least: spread the word.
Ask your friends, family and associates to take these steps as well —
restricting their privacy settings and turning off the GPS function on their
smartphone cameras — so that you and your loved ones can’t be
inadvertently tracked through photos on Facebook or other Internet sites.
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