Today’s topic is yet another one that you simply cannot afford to ignore. We’re talking about Geo-Tagging (sometimes called GeoCoding), an incredibly valuable metadata tool that when used incorrectly or unknowingly can prove to be extremely harmful. This technology came about with the advent of the GPS, and is now automatically built into to most of your devices. You might be using it without even realizing it, so read on…
As a Genealogist and Pro Photo Organizer, I am generally in favor of geo-tagging your photos. I think this type of metadata is extremely valuable information to capture, and I recommend that people take advantage of it, BUT (and note that it’s a BIG but!), it should be used for the correct purpose. As wonderful as it can be, there are risks that come along with it, specifically in the online community. In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be something to worry about, but unfortunately you need to be cautious when it comes to oversharing online. My goal with this post is to help you understand when and, more importantly, when not to use geo-tagging in your photos.
What is Geo-Tagging?
Metadata, in a nutshell, is the workhorse of your photo organizational system; it’s comprised of all the little details that are embedded within your photos to tell the story of who, what, when, where, and why your photos were taken. Geo-tags are a part of that meta data system, and they represent the where part.
A photo is considered geo-tagged when it contains metadata that identifies the location where that photo was taken. A decade or so ago, the only metadata that attached to your photos were the date, time, and what camera was used, but as technology has evolved and smartphones have come into everyday use, it now includes a lot more than that – anything from your address to your zip code, and even your phone number can now become a part of the auto-tagging features (depending on your settings).
How does Geo-Tagging Work?
Most modern smartphones have a built-in GPS system, which can access any photo taken with that smartphone’s camera, thereby adding the geographical metadata into the photo automatically. More often than not, people use the location settings on their phones and don’t realize that this information gets automatically tagged into all the photos as well. This information is then stored inside the image files (in the EXIF metadata), and can be viewed or extracted as needed.
The Pros of Geo-Tagging
Geo-Tagging can be very valuable not just for organizing your photos, but also when dealing with locations that will change over time. I come across this all the time in my genealogy work when visiting cemeteries or a location where a family home once stood. When I’m out researching ancestors, geo-tagging locations helps me trace my ancestors’ footsteps. A great example is grave markers; they don’t always withstand the test of time, so recording the location of where someone was buried can help future generations find the same spot. The same goes for any landmark or other public place where an important event took place. The future cannot guarantee that the environment will look the same, so using coordinates in those types of situations can be very helpful to tell and preserve your families’ stories. Analyzing patterns and movements by plopping a few photos onto a digital map has helped me solve more than one family mystery. Amazing, right?
The Dangers of Geo-Tagging
The downside of geo-tagging is identical to it’s benefit = it reveals a lot of information. When a photo is geo-tagged on a public platform, other users can see that, find more photos from the same location, or find local events happening in that same area. It’s basically the same thing as “checking in” to a location. In some cases, this may be your intention, but keep in mind that it can also lead to disaster.
Nowadays, because so many photos are taken with smartphones, Geo-tagging is often on auto-pilot, meaning that your photos include the latitude/longitude coordinates of where they were taken, plus (sometimes) details like a street address, a zip code, or even the number attached to your phone. Some of the most popular social media platforms and photo sharing services use geo-tagging extensively, including Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram. This means that if you take a photo with your smartphone and upload it to your social media account, you are revealing your location publicly, unless you have turned off the geo-tagging features on your phone.
If you check in to a concert on social media, it can be great for your friends who are trying to find you, and fun for others who wish they were there with you, but it can also be quite dangerous because you’re not only revealing where you are, but also where you currently aren’t, i.e. at home. You’ve just told the world that you won’t be home for a few hours, and by viewing the metadata of that photo, anyone online can easily locate your home on Google Maps within a few clicks. If you are someone who likes to share photos of the pretty flowers in your garden, or if you have listed your hometown in your social profile, it’ll take a thief less than three minutes to find your exact street address. There have been countless incidents of people announcing that they’re heading on vacation, only to come back to an empty house. Caution advised.
How Do People See the Metadata?
It’s fairly easy to find out your current location, where you normally hang out, as well as where most of your photos are taken using geo-tagging technology, so keep this in mind when sharing online. If you regularly “check-in” to the same places, it’s a no-brainer to figure out where you are going to be next. You might think “Oh, it can’t be that easy, can it?” Yeah, it is. You don’t need any special, super-expensive, spy-type surveillance equipment to see this stuff, and you don’t even need to be a techie. Anyone can do it just by being online. A number of online applications can read geotagged metadata, including Google Maps, and Pic2Map. There are also several add-ons for internet browsers, such as EXIF Viewer for Mozilla, EXIF Viewer for Chrome, and IEXIF for Internet Explorer. There are even viewers that can be installed straight to your smartphone, making it even easier to locate someone on-the-go. These tools are all free, and very easy to use. Scary, right?
How Do I Know if My Camera Has Geo-Tagging?
Good question! This isn’t just a fact with smartphones, so check your “regular cameras” too, if you plan on sharing your photos online! It’s safe to say that most modern cameras have the geo-tagging feature available, but because we don’t normally use our cameras as GPS systems, the risk that it might be on auto-pilot it much less than with a smartphone.
How Do I Turn Off Geo-Tagging on My Phone?
To stop your phone from geo-tagging photos from now on, turn off the location sharing settings to your phone’s camera, or turn off your location settings altogether.
To remove the geolocation metadata in photos that already exist, you will need to use a metadata stripping program. There are plenty of them on the market, some free and others, not so free. If you are already using a photo organizing program, such as Adobe Lightroom, you should be able to remove location metadata fairly easily just by accessing the metadata settings for your photos. Check the program you’re using to see if it has this capability (most do). If (for any reason) your photo organizing software can’t remove geo-tags, or if you prefer to use a stand-alone app, here are a few to consider:
PixelGarde (downloadable from the iTunes App Store; http://www.pixelgarde.com/)
GeoGone (downloadable from the iTunes App Store; http://www.nhxhn.com/GeoGone/page2.html)
ExifEraser (downloadable from the iTunes App Store; http://www.exiferaser.com/)
deGeo (downloadable from the iTunes App Store; http://mobileinfocenter.com/degeo/)
Photo Investigator (downloadable from the iTunes App Store; http://www.photoinvestigator.co/about/)
TrashExif (downloadable from the iTunes App Store)
GPS Deloger (downloadable from the iTunes App Store)
Google Play also has a huge list of apps that you may be able to use!
Want to Add Geo-Tags to Your Photos?
I know a good part of my readers are Genealogists, so I want to make sure that I stress how helpful geolocation metadata can be for attacking your brick walls! If you think geo-tags would be a valuable option for your photos, but don’t currently have them, it’s not to late! You can add geo-tags simply by editing the metadata in your photos. If you are less tech-savvy, you can use an online service, such as GeoImgr, programs, such as GeoSetter and ExifTool, or an add-on like pictoGEO. If you have a photo organizing program, such as Adobe Lightroom, you can manage your geo-tags from right inside it.
My goal with this post is not to scare you, but to have you understand the benefits as well as the risks involving your photos’ metadata. Geo-tagging can be an amazing tool to use for genealogy work, travel photography, and for photo organizing, but it’s important to know how to use it. Use it sparingly when it’s a photo that you are planning to share online, and especially (and I can’t stress this enough) when there are children in your photos.
So, to recap, don’t share a geo-tagged photo online, if:
It includes your children
It contains a sensitive subject (you be the judge)
It is a high-value item (either for sale, or something you just bought, no matter how proud you are!)
It’s my sincere hope that the world will come around, so I can remove the warnings from this post, but until that day, be mindful of what you share, and make sure you use your geo-tags with intention! Safety first!
Need Step-by-Step Instructions?
If you need a bit more help with your geo-tags, request my ultimate guide to geo-tagging! It’s a printable PDF that’ll help you manage the metadata on your smartphone, as well as in your Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram accounts. For those of you who are subscribed to my mailing list already, you can download this guide in the resource library!