Photo Geotagging: Stop Giving Out Your Home Address on Twitter
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Updated 3.22.2012 Sometime in the last twenty-four hours, between when this was posted and this morning, the Instagram maps I discuss have disappeared. Instagram is oddly quiet, too. I have inquiries out and will update you when I know something but in the meantime I am feeling all internet powerful and stuff...
photo courtesy Darren Wittko
“Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.” Walt Disney
Walt died in 1966, years before the guys who invented Twitter were born, yet one look at a twitter stream will show you that Walt's words are still true today.
Twitter handles a staggering 22.5 million photos a day, according to twitter founder Ev Stone, about 25% of the 90 million total daily tweets. Media Bistro cites over 58 million photos were shared on Twitter in December 2011.
I know that those two statistics don't exactly add up but to be honest, statistics about twitter vary widely enough to make me doubt the specifics of all of them. My guess is that if I bothered to dig, Ev's numbers would reflect retweets while the second number counts photos, not tweets. In any case, the numbers are huge and that's somewhat beside the point.
Which is: What exactly are you sharing with the world when you tweet a photo?
Looking at one of those picture on Instagr.am recently, I noticed that there was a map on the page. This was a static map, so you only see a marker in a general location: Seattle, little north of Chicago, or in this case, somewhere in Florida.
There are also live Google maps on some photos. These maps allow zooming in to a much more exact location. The choice to use that style of map and tell the world exactly where you are seems questionable in most circumstances, public spaces like Disney World being the possible exception. Most people, wisely, choose to use the static map when shooting in locations less public than that.
The maps that show up on photo services like flickr and Instgr.am use Global Positioning System (GPS) coordinates to know where to center the map. These coordinates, which are determined using satellite and/or cell phone towers, are stored in the EXIF data of photographs that are taken with smartphones (and some newer cameras) to identify where the photo was taken. How well this "geotagging" works differs based on a number of technical details such as where you are, who your cell phone service is with, the weather, whether your device is talking to a sattleite or cell towers, and the mood of the universe. As a result the GPS coordinates attached to a given photo may be off by 50-100 meters/yards or they may be dead on. (photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
The static map seems innocuous, though, providing a general idea of where you are without exposing too much personal data. This has made it popular with people who want to balance the public persona they use for work or blogging with a little bit of privacy...something which is becoming increasingly difficult.
From how location works in Instagram, which describes their static map:
When you view the webpage for a photo taken with location on, a map will display where the photo was taken, like this: http://instagr.am/p/DVJ79/ (On the 22nd, the map on the linked page also disappeared. In fact, this is damned near the only evidence I can find that those maps ever existed since Google doesn't cache Instagr.am images. It's all very Twilight Zone. If my friends start "forgetting" that they saw the actual maps I am leaving town!)
Staring at the static map, something bothered me. I am a geek and I know they had to generate the map somehow. Meaning they had to have the same GPS coordinates that the dynamic map uses at some point in the process of building the web page.
Turning the likely map generation process over in my head, I right-clicked on the Instagr.am page and selected View Page Source from the context menu. Without looking at the screen, I did a quick search and when I looked up I was staring at GPS coordinates. Interesting.
I plugged those numbers into Google maps to see exactly what it would show me. A home address. No wait, not A home address. THE home address. The correct home address of the person who took the picture.
I know, right? But wait, there's more...
While I was poking around for this article—a process that made me feel all skeevy and in need of a shower—I found one food blogger who shoots a lot of food at home. One photo of was sort of dark, clearly taken inside the house. The next photo, taken of the same dish a few minutes later, was filled with this glorious late afternoon light, obviously not taken in the same place. Comparing the GPS data on the two photos, I determined that the first photo was taken inside the house, towards the north side which has a bunch of tall trees around it—hence the dreadful light. Second photo was taken in the front yard on a little red table which was dead center of the photograph.
Finding a photo that demonstrated this without actually being horribly invasive myself was not easy. I ended up with a photo of the Walt and Mickey statue and which has the static map.
View 28.418600, -81.581200 in a larger map
This map shows the location of the photographer who took the photo (center bottom—28.4186,-81.5812) according to the map on their flickr page. It also shows the GPS coordinates underlying the static map displayed on the Instagr.am page (up and to the right a bit—28.419,-81.581). The two spots are perhaps 150 feet apart. In the suburbs, that may mean it points to your neighbor's house; out here in the country where "lots" are big, it's pretty much dead on.
I should note that this is how it works on Instagr.am, not necessarily everywhere. But without digging into a dozen sites for how they deal with this now and tracking how they change it in the future, you have to consider the general question of broadcasting your location.
Right about now, I bet you have one question: How the hell do I turn that off?
How to turn off photo geotagging
The exact steps you need to take to turn off location services vary by device (phone, camera, etc.) and web site (twitter, instagr.am, ad so on). In general, you need to look at the following things:
- Phone—GPS/Location services are used for navigation and a number of smart phone functions so you may not want to turn them off entirely. If you seldom need directions, though, it will shortcut some of these steps and as a bonus, save on your battery use.
- Applications—Most phones will let you turn off location services for individual application so check the settings for your twitter and photo applications. If you are posting from a computer, check each of the applications you use to post photos and tweets.
- Twitter—These settings control both tweets and photos uploaded directly to twitter. About the tweet location feature includes how to purge all location data.
- Instagram—Here is an overview of how location works on instagram and instruction for how to turn location on or off. Unfortunately the only way to remove the location from an existing image is to delete the photo.
- flickr—How flickr uses geotagging is explained in The Map. To edit the location information or other settings on a photo, double-click it in Organizr then click the Location tab to access privacy settings and location information. You can also set up a "geofence" around areas (like your house) that excludes them from displaying geotagging information. (thanks to Elaine Nelson for the last tip.)
I could not find information on changing geotagging settings for Twitpic, Yfrog or Lockr. If you use one of these services and find out how, please let me know so I can add it.