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How worried should parents be about location and geotagging services?

Recently, while chatting with my sister about posting photos of our kids on sites like Facebook and Instagram, she told me that she’d heard that other people can sometimes divine the location where the photo was taken.

To prevent strangers and lurkers in the seedy underbelly of the Internet from figuring out where she lives while viewing pictures of her cute-as-a-button 3-year-old, she says she turns off the location settings on her phone when she’s not using it for navigation.

I vaguely remembered a news report on the same issue a while back.

Ironically, even though I’m all over social media – I have accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+ – I still want to pretend like I have some control over my privacy. I disabled the location sharing setting on my various accounts so that followers and friends don’t see where I’m posting from. (Frankly, it’s always odd to know when an acquaintance has just entered the Starbucks down the road – do I need to know that?) And, of course, when it comes to my kids, I’d prefer to keep their specific whereabouts off the radar, so I, too, turned off the location settings.

But then I decided to do some poking around on the subject.

How worried should I be about geotagging and location services?

Snopes offers a great overview on the topic of geotagging on your photos.

Here are the basics:

Every time you snap a picture with a digital camera or your phone, a variety of information about the photo is stored with the picture. This information is called metadata, and includes things like the time and date the photo was taken, the type of camera you used, the settings and – if your device has a built-in GPS receiver – the location.

When posted online to a personal website or blog, this data attached to the photo might allow someone to track the specific location where photos were taken. But posting to sites like Twitter or Facebook is less risky because many social media sites automatically strip metadata like geotracking from a photo to protect user privacy.

To ensure this data isn’t attached to your photos, you can turn off the GPS feature on your device. You can also remove or change the information stored with your photos using an EXIF metadata editor or by using a photo editor or converter program to save pictures in a format that doesn’t support EXIF metadata.

So if you’re not careful, then yes, everyone who has access to photos you post online could figure out your whereabouts. And in the age of Edward Snowden, NSA metadata collection and general paranoia about identity theft and online criminals, this only creates more anxiety among parents about how to keep their kids safe.

Which is why I think it’s also important to read posts like this on Free-Range Kids. Author Lenore Skenazy bemoans over-reactive news media and overprotective parents for freaking out about phantom predators using location data from cell phone pictures.

“How GRATEFUL we must be to the TV reporters who dwell and dwell and dwell on the fact that now we parents must be even MORE vigilant, because so many predators are busy using GPS embeds to ‘cherry pick’ (TV’s word) and track down the ONLY kid worth taking: YOURS,” she writes.

The commenters offer a bit of levity as well.

“My Facebook feed is full of links to this and everyone freaking out,” one writes. “My life became a lot easier once I realized that my kids just aren’t that special and no one wants to kidnap them.”


-Susan Jennings